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I am the first to admit that the Oscars are rarely given to the finest in the art of film, but much more likely to the loftiest of middlebrow entertainment (with some edginess thrown in on occasion for good measure).
At the same time, I think we do have one thing to be grateful for when it comes to the Academy. Since the balloting closes the first of the year, more and more, fall and early winter leaves behind the cheek of tan, tent pole blockbusters of summer (films forced into as many of the four quadrants as it may fit) and gives way to producers who, like the changing colors of leaves, turn to releasing their prestige pictures, the ones they believe have the best chance at garnering the attention of the gold statuette who hides his genitals with a sword.
These films are the ones that producers and studio executives feel they don’t have to apologize or make excuses for and instead can brag that they actually had a hand in their making.
One of these films, Spotlight (or All the Cardinal’s Men as a friend of mine called it) is now being spoken of as the one to beat come spring. And, taking everything into consideration, they could certainly do far worse, because, however else you may feel about it, Spotlight is the epitome of middlebrow taste, and, even better, is crackerjack entertainment.
Written by Josh Singer (who also gave us the non-crackerjack The Fifth Estate) and the director Tom McCarthy (who was on a winning streak with The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win, but whose forward momentum nearly came to a screeching halt with The Cobbler—I bet his agents are thrilled this movie came out in the nick of time to make us forget that Adam Sandler fiasco), the basic story revolves around a group of Boston Globe reporters called Spotlight (hence the title) who do investigative reporting that requires more time, space and depth than others—stories that need a more focused and brighter light pin pointed on them.
When the group gets a new managing editor, he immediately spots a story, a columnist had reported on an investigation into a pedophile priest, that he thinks would be just the sort of thing Spotlight would find their cup of tea.
And indeed, they do drink said tea. But they don’t take up the story because their interest in it is from moral outrage or a need to improve society. No, like the heroes of All the President’s Men, it’s just an interesting story.
But as they do look into it, they discover that they have an iceberg on their hands. They’ve only been given one-tenth, if that much, of what is going on. The story is much larger than they could ever have imagined. And their interest grows from just another story to one that questions everything they, and the citizens of Boston, believe to be true as they discover that almost 90 pedophile priests have been transferred from diocese to diocese to hide their, and the Church’s, sins while a cottage industry has grown up around it for lawyers to make money off of deals that never even reach the Court.
And the story is no longer just a story on their part, but, appropriately enough, a crusade of moral outrage.
Spotlight is strongest not in the scenes of reporters going about their job, but in the scenes that focus on the victims, the ones whose lives were forever altered by what they went through. Sometimes it’s just a visual of a young man whose arms are filled with healing needle punctures or a lunch for what at first an old school chum assumes is going to be a nostalgic get together, but when the subject is broached, his eyes dim with pain and there is a long deafening silence before he speaks again, a silence that tells you everything you need to know.
I can’t say that Spotlight is inspired movie making. There is little of the directorial flourishes that Alan J. Pakula brought to All the President’s Men. McCarthy’s approach betrays no strong personal style. Instead he pretty much films it as is, head one. So it’s a bit flat to look at.
What drives Spolight, instead, is the subject matter, the crisp and clean screenplay, and the masterly performances by one and all in the cast. The acting may eschew the somewhat over the top and attention seeking Actor’s Studio method acting of a Dustin Hoffman, but it’s filled with performers who seem to do whatever they can to burrow deep within their characters and lose themselves and fulfill their parts with quiet restraint.
For Michael Keaton, it’s probably his finest performance of his career. It’s almost as if he’s been spending the last decade or so trying to make people forget that he’s no longer the Keaton of Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, a reputation he hasn’t been quite able to shake.
But here he has fully and finally done it as Walter Robinson, Spotlight’s editor. He seems so relaxed in the role, down to earth, someone you might meet on the street and pass by without any sort of recognition, but with introspective eyes and posture that suggests he is always thinking, questioning, full of self doubt, perhaps even of the existential variety.
Mark Ruffalo, who I feel has been doing Mark Ruffalo for the past few years, becomes Mike Rezendes, the most overeager and perhaps too rush to judgement of the reporters. He has the swagger of a bulldog and pushes his lines out as if they are leading him rather than vice versa.
Liv Schreiber, as the new managing editor, Marty Baron, somehow manages to bury his larger than life persona into the skin of a determined, but actually rather introverted and shy one. I always felt he never looked anyone straight in the eyes.
Stanley Tucci, with jowls like Droopy Dawg, plays the righteous lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian and has one especially marvelous moment where he refuses to let down his guard and be nice and then turns on a dime and becomes Santa Clause as he enters a room with two little children who have been victimized. Meanwhile, Billy Cruddop has oil dripping from his pores in the role of the amoral and unrighteous lawyer Eric Macleish; he does most of his acting with a poker face only betrayed by sparkling eyes that you swear could shoot lasers.
Also in the cast are a slew of familiar faces: Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James are the two other Spotlight reporters; John Slattery as Ben Bradlee, Jr., Spotlight’s supervising editor, plays John Slattery (which is fine by me; all I can think when I seem him is: who is going play John Slattery when he’s no longer around to do so); Jamey Sheridan (Flagg of the TV adaptation of The Stand) as an old friend of Walter’s and attorney for the Arch Diocese; and Len Cariou as the unctuous and ironically named Cardinal Law.
And with Richard Jenkins in the uncredited (and unseen) role of Richard Sipe.
In 2003, The Boston Globe and the Spotlight team won the Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of this story.