Five stars. Rated R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.20.15
Crusading newspaper journalists have been a cinema staple ever since the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur stage play The Front Page first hit the big screen in 1931, but true classics are rare.
Meet John Doe, The Big Carnival, Deadline USA and Absence of Malice come to mind, and they all have one thing in common: They’re fictitious stories.
Memorable films based on actual reporters who pursued real-world scoops are more scarce, in part because few screenwriters can spin compelling drama from the day-after-grinding-day research slog that precedes a “breaking” news story, which (to the outside world) seems to come out of nowhere. The gold standard in this category remains All the President’s Men, in great part due to screenwriter William Goldman’s superb, Oscar-winning adaptation of the Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book.
Goldman now has equally talented company: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, who’ve done a masterful job with Spotlight — McCarthy also serving as director — and its depiction of the four Boston Globe reporters who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for their astonishing series of stories exposing the long-term cover-up of child abuse by members of the Boston Catholic Church clergy.
As was the case with All the President’s Men, Spotlight isn’t merely an engaging — even suspenseful — drama, fueled by excellent performances from a well-selected ensemble cast; it’s a valuable historical document that details a frankly heinous abuse of trust and power. It’s simultaneously cathartic and horrific: a crisply condensed depiction of an extremely complicated story that expands so far beyond initial expectations, that — were it fiction — it likely wouldn’t be believed.
But it’s not fiction; it’s grim, infuriating and relentlessly heartbreaking fact.
Not to mention another reminder of the significant service performed by newspapers and their dedicated staffs, and the frankly alarming hole we’ll be in, as a country, if the Fourth Estate is allowed to be replaced by the frivolous, empty-calorie content of “web journalism” (an oxymoron if ever one existed).
McCarthy is an actor who burst on the filmmaking scene when he wrote and directed 2003’s The Station Agent, one of the finest, quirkiest dramedies of the new century. Singer has a wealth of TV scripting credits in his still-brief career, notably The West Wing and Fringe, and he made the jump to movies with the 2013 Julian Assange dramatization, The Fifth Estate.
Both McCarthy and Singer have an ear for realistic dialog, and particularly the careful “dance” that takes place during painfully raw and intimate conversations. This film is laden with such scenes — some quite difficult to watch — and all handled masterfully both by the film’s stars, and by lesser cast members appearing perhaps only briefly.
The story begins in 2001, as newly arrived editor Martin Barton (Liev Schreiber) assumes control of The Boston Globe. Barton is a transplant from The Miami Herald, and Globe staffers are nervous both because he’s an outsider with absolutely no knowledge of Boston culture, and the ferocious pride of the city’s residents; and because the new century has brought the first wave of cutbacks soon to eviscerate newspapers across the country.
Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is particularly anxious, because he heads the team of Spotlight reporters — Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy) — who operate as their own investigative entity, separate from the rest of the newsroom, and are accustomed to spending months, perhaps years, on hand-picked stories they deem important.
Robby fears that this unusual (but long-established) deployment of staff resources might seem self-indulgent. But the concern proves groundless; Barton definitely is interested in readership-pleasing, big-ticket stories ... but he has a specific topic in mind. As an outsider, he doesn’t understand why nobody has pursued a priest — the Rev. John J. Geoghan — who seems to have survived child abuse charges.
Everybody — up to and including the city’s Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) — assumes that Barton simply doesn’t understand the venerable relationship Boston has with the Catholic Church. But that isn’t it at all, as Schreiber’s nuanced performance makes clear; he does get it. He simply doesn’t care. And the flicker of pained distaste that crosses his expression amply conveys his opinion of those who condescendingly dismiss him as an outsider.
Perhaps because of such treatment, Barton encourages Robby’s already rising desire to do more than merely investigate a single depraved priest. Remaining content to expose and punish “a few bad apples” has perpetuated this crisis for generations; far better, instead, to target the apparent institutional corruption that has allowed such a situation to persist for so long. (Geoghan, we eventually learn, was shuffled from one parish to another for more than three decades.)
But uncovering that story proves difficult beyond description, because of the obstructionist power wielded so successfully, and for so long, by the Catholic hierarchy.
McCarthy and Singer are enormously clever, with respect to the way their script teases out details regarding both the growing scope of the investigation, and the expanding degree of close-mouthed corruption. Robby and his colleagues become our surrogates in astonishment and rage, as this story blossoms like a putrescent weed. Even with what avid followers of current events know, more than a decade later, we viewers can’t help being shocked by the complicity and duplicity.
Ruffalo is spot-on as the hard-charging Rezendes, whose dedication to work appears to have destroyed his marriage (a sidebar detail given just enough lip-service to get the point across). He represents the team’s outrage: quick to anger but just as determined to surmount each new obstacle. Rezendes therefore is rewarded with this saga’s biggest and best “reveal,” and it’s a moment that Ruffalo milks for maximum impact, his triumphant grin mirroring our own satisfaction.
Carroll is the methodical research wonk, and d’Arcy makes him a stabilizing influence on the others. He’s a quiet family man, almost mousy behind eyeglasses, but that’s deceptive; his defining moment comes after his wife and children have gone to bed, when — still consumed by yet more exploratory probing — he suddenly realizes that the situation has hit very close to home.
McAdams makes Pfeiffer the sensitive cajoler who can get reluctant subjects to open up; her lengthy conversation with one now-adult abuse victim is excruciatingly uncomfortable — her interviewee playing this scene so well — and almost beyond endurance. It’s one of those superbly directed and acted scenes that transcends the artifice of film; we feel like voyeurs listening in on a conversation never meant for outside ears.
And Pfeiffer patiently, gently but resolutely extracts the necessary details, McAdams conveying equal parts shared agony and reluctant determination.
Keaton, finally, is an intriguing puzzle as Robby. He’s clearly determined and persistent, and Keaton’s expressions — particularly when Robby is being snowed by somebody — are marvelous displays of subtle inflection. I love the way he grimaces, purses his lips and bobs his head in dissatisfaction, like a dog shaking off fleas. At the same time, though, Keaton adds an element of uncertainty; Robby seems to be a man with secrets.
Stanley Tucci shines as Mitchell Garabedian, an eccentric defense attorney who has long waged war against the Catholic Church on behalf of abused clients, and who has abandoned any hope of assistance from those who should be journalistic allies. Tucci’s unconventional manner initially borders on comic relief, but we quickly realize that Garabedian doesn’t deserve the “opportunistic crank” label with which he has been tagged.
John Slattery is solid and crisply efficient as Spotlight editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (yes, son of longtime Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who oversaw the Woodward/Bernstein Watergate investigation). Billy Crudup is suitably smarmy as Eric Macleish, a church legal mouthpiece who initially seems sympathetic to the Spotlight investigation; Jamey Sheridan radiates bonhomie and institutional self-preservation as a friend of Robby’s, who won’t tell what he knows.
Goodness, we never even see Richard Jenkins — getting only his voice during several phone calls — but he’s also note-perfect, as a psychiatrist who has long studied what he describes as a clinical “pedophile priest phenomenon.”
The action is edited smartly by Tom McArdle, the mounting investigation — and its results, emerging in such frustratingly tantalizing bits and pieces — granted additional emotional heft by Howard Shore’s superb orchestral score.
Spotlight is a rich and rewarding film: a stylish depiction of actual events, told with intensity and authority. Knowing the story’s outcome doesn’t make this dramatization any less exciting.
And certainly no less important.