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Entries in Spotlight [2015] (1)

Friday
Nov132015

Spotlight (2015)

Duck and Cover-up 

Finally, a Boston I can believe in! As I wrote in my Black Mass review, most cinematic depictions of Beantown that I've seen are cartoons packed with cursing, macho blowhards; tread-upon women; and an anti-intellectualism that would give the broadest of Southern redneck satires a run for its money. Here comes Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, a brilliant beacon of hope in the muck, and one of the year's very best films.

Yes, yes, it's mid-November, so I am, as a film critic, morally and contractually obligated to heap awards hyperbole on every studio picture with a brand-name cast and a hard-hitting topic at its core. Don't let Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Stanley Tucci (the Ghosts of Contenders Past) or the Catholic Church cover-up storyline scare you away. Spotlight isn't a gooey and predictable drama of scandal, twists, and redemption--though those elements creep along its edges. This is a period piece about a world on the brink of an information revolution, and the centuries-old cover-up that would herald a shift in how we reckon with the institutions that govern us.

In 2001, The Boston Globe's four-person investigative team cracked a story about pedophile priests working in the city. What began as an unusual case of a man of the cloth molesting several young boys ballooned into accusations against thirteen priests. Looking deeper into the trail of abuse, the Globe's "Spotlight" team discovered that nearly eighty priests had been shuffled from church to church since at least the 1960s--all with the knowledge of local politicians, lawyers, and, of course, the Catholic higher-ups.

Because Boston is a famously (almost cartoonishly) Catholic town, editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Keaton) has his work cut out for him. His staff consists of an unhealthily dedicated reporter whose marriage is on the rocks (Ruffalo), a twitchy family man (Brian D'Arcy James) who discovers that a Catholic "reprogramming" house is just down the block from his home, and an empathetic journalist (Rachel McAdams) who lives with her devout mother. On top of that, Robby's new boss (Liev Schreiber) is a Miami transplant who's been hired by the publisher to make the paper run as efficiently as possible--a dicey prospect for a team that operates outside the standard conduct and deadline parameters. Oh, and there's the matter of the Church, whose influence extends from the highest offices of power to the lowliest of clerkships.

Spotlight's thrills come from watching a close-knit family of professionals do the hard work of digging for the truth. They knock on doors; cope with nasty comments and threats from victims and victims' families; and work their way through reams of documents that need to be transcribed and cross-referenced in fledgling Internet software. It's odd to think that a film set fifteen years ago could play like a Dark Ages period piece, but there's the AOL billboard; there's the avalanche of folders, reference books, and beat-up inter-office envelopes. Just as we no longer bat an eye at the notion of priests being discretely transplanted between parishes (thanks largely to the Globe's reporting), it's hard to imagine sifting through volumes of dusty, old books rather than simply scrolling, copying, and pasting on our pocket-sized Trees of Knowledge.

This is a superhero-team movie in which not one person flies, and whose buildings are left standing at the end.* Robinson and his reporters expose a shadowy criminal organization, rescue families from certain doom, and put a dent in a network of evil that spreads from town to town. They do it without capes or glory, though, and often at the expense of respect in their communities. There's a more obvious metaphor about how Spotlight consists, in a way, of actual cinematic/comic-book characters (Howard Stark, Batman, The Incredible Hulk, and whomever McAdams will play in Marvel's Dr. Strange next year), but I won't go there--any more than I already have.

Speaking of the characters, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer give us just enough information to be intrigued, get invested, and want to see them succeed. We get snippets of their personal lives outside the paper, but there are no big blow-ups about spending too much time at the office, no teary reconciliations for the couple-on-the-brink. There is only The Boston Globe, and the total commitment it requires. We get the feeling that the pedophilia story is eerie for the team of recovering-Catholic journalists, but that their obsession with details and exposing lies would be just as overwhelming had the story been about unpaid parking tickets at the mayor's office.

I have some not-small problems with parts of the film, a few dim spots on Spotlight's otherwise brilliant beam. First, I don't know what the hell is up with Mark Ruffalo's performance. I love the actor, but he's just plain "off" in this movie. He plays someone based in real life, sure, but his portrayal is goofy, an obnoxious assemblage of ticks made to give his Mike Rezendes an awkward, lumbering-mouse feel. He speaks in marble-mouthed clips and skulks about like a featured SNL player trying to get attention from the back of the set. His co-stars are models of subtlety, grace, and believability (even Tucci, who plays the victims' put-upon legal crusader and Billy Crudup as the Church's oh-so-lawyerly defense attorney).

Speaking of subtlety, McCarthy and Singer could have used a lot more in the soapboxing department. Spotlight's glaring flaw is its lack of balance in portraying people's real-world relationship to faith, to Catholicism in particular. The victims' testimonies are all heartbreaking, but the delivery ranges from Movie of the Week to After School Special. We meet the junky, the damaged gay guy, the successful businessman who never told his wife and kids. No doubt these things happened, and still happen, but the delivery is so overwrought that I felt the movie was holding me personally responsible for this network of silent abuse.

Spotlight makes an interesting case in that regard, about how everyone who suspected something was amiss--but who didn't speak up--are at least spiritually culpable for the continued sex crimes (there are shades of this today in Bill Cosby's predation scandal). But not all Catholics are directly responsible for what went on,** and not all Catholics who still attend church are sleeper-thugs just waiting for a phone call from the Cardinal. The film's depiction of the faithful is ghastly, with our intrepid reporters constantly encountering overgrown children who can't understand why anyone would want to arrest Jesus--or wannabe mob enforcers who abuse their power by, for example, stalling the release of freshly unsealed court documents.

There are no decent priests in this film, no stand-up churchgoers, either. Speaking as someone who served an utterly uncontroversial yet mostly rewarding two years as an altar boy a quarter-century ago, I can say that there are good Catholics out there, and that a large chunk of Spotlight rang false for me. Maybe things really are different in Southie, but I left the church for reasons that had nothing to do with a guy in a robe offering me cheap wine (sorry, "blessed") and a look down his pants. For all its beautiful dedication to making truth-finding sexy, Spotlight curiously ignores the fact that faith plays a very real part in the lives of millions of people--decent people who, when the Globe story broke, likely faced a deep existential crisis regarding the schism between their spirituality and the institutions that heavily informed their identities. The shoe-leather portions of the is film are pure Woodward and Bernstein. Sadly, it looks like the parishioner profiles were written by Bill Maher.

*With the notable exception of a brief 9/11 interlude, but I hope you take my meaning.

**If you want to make the argument that they are indirectly responsible, that's fair--as long as you hold voters to the same standard when their (party-agnostic) President bombs weddings and hospitals abroad while also working to expand rights and create jobs at home.