BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Since 2003, writer/director Tom McCarthy has directed a steady handful of compact little character-driven indie features (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win/Win) that have been among the most resonant U.S. films of our era. With Spotlight, his sprawling look at the Boston Globe‘s investigation of the Catholic clergy’s sex crimes, McCarthy gives the impression of a talent in full bloom. In his largest scale film yet, Spotlight takes us down the wormhole of abuse, lies and church power without losing us in the labyrinth or forgetting the human tragedy at the story’s center.
At the center of the film is Michael Keaton in his first performance since his triumphant Birdman comeback and once again he delivers a very lean, absorbing performance. Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, part of an investigative team put into action by the Globe‘s new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to write an in-depth expose on the Catholic church’s role in shielding priests facing sexual assault charges. And this is Boston, a city in which the Catholic church is deeply entwined with politics, education and the everyday lives of its parishioners. Mark Ruffalo, (bearing a bunch of odd ticks and mannerisms I’ve never seen from him before) Rachel McAdams and Mad Men‘s John Slattery play a trio of Globe reporters in on the hunt and as you might expect, things get darker and creepier as the team gets closer to the truth.
Besides being a love letter to the disappearing world of in-depth, well-funded investigative reporting, Spotlight evolves into a great detective story. And like all great detective films, Spotlight uses the fact-collecting as a perfect excuse to introduce a string of curious character actors for a series of revealing vignettes. This plays right into McCarthy’s strengths, and each character we meet gives us a little something about themselves that makes the world McCarthy has created appear to organically exist outside of the film’s plot mechanizations. It’s easy to imagine Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of dogged lawyer Mitchell Garabedian carrying his own film, as he labors with a Sisyphean tenacity through his own paranoia and cynicism, feeling like he may never find justice for his abuse victim clients. Neal Huff is heartbreaking as one of those survivors, needing to convince others of his abuse while the experience’s toll has left him on the verge of madness.
Co-scripted by McCarthy and Josh Singer, (whose writing here brings to mind his work on The West Wing) Spotlight recalls such newspaper caper films as All the President’s Men, or Sidney Pollack’s Absence of Malice, and while Spotlight has its heroes and villains it never misses a chance to complicate its characters and situations, finding foibles and nobility in unexpected places. There’s such richness from moment to moment (kudos to the overcast cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, who shot little of note till Silver Linings Playbook, and Cronenberg fave Howard Shore’s minor-keyed score) it is easy to imagine this story languishing on over a TV season yet a feature film’s heightened punch drives home the anguish that these child rapes unleashed, like a time-release bomb stabbed deeply into these young (mostly) men’s psyches.
In the end, the film draws its power in revealing the scale of the church’s crimes and their unwillingness to confront the culture that led to them. After exploring these horrors you’re ready to relax into the film’s happy ending, but a title card reminds us that Boston’s Cardinal Law was promoted to the Vatican after his role in the scandal was revealed. This is followed by a few pages of tiny script listing hundreds of locations world-wide where abuse has been documented. It is a final blow that will leave you sick in the gut and wondering how we could compartmentalize these horrific crimes to the point that the city celebrated the church’s leader’s Philly visit just two months back. If the uncovering of a systematic program to protect and facilitate pedophiles isn’t enough to make an institution fundamentally change, what would? The most disturbing revelation is that Spotlight isn’t just a history lesson, it sadly seems like a look at our future as well.