Movie Review - Spotlight

A lot of people will compare this film to the Oscar-winning All the President's Men (1976). For starters, this movie opens with a scene that takes place in the year 1976. It similarly focuses on dogged reporters trying to uncover what ends up being a national scandal. It also features characters who are related by blood. Jason Robards won the Oscar for his role in All the President's Men playing Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the newspaper in that movie. In this film, Bradlee's son, Ben Jr. is featured. Emmy-nominee John Slattery plays Ben Jr., the Assistant Managing Editor of The Boston Globe, the newspaper in question here.

In 2002, The Boston Globe ran a story, which exposed child sexual abuse cases covered up by the Catholic Church. That story led to widespread media coverage and the eventual resignation of Bernard Francis Law, the Cardinal and Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts. However, some have criticized that not enough has been done despite the huge amount of coverage. This movie details the process that the reporters for The Boston Globe undertook to do that story.

Michael Keaton (Birdman and Batman) stars as Walter V. Robinson aka Robby, an editor-at-large for the newspaper. He runs a 4-person, investigative unit called "Spotlight Team." When a new leading editor joins the paper, Robby explains that the Spotlight Team finds a story and digs into it for months and months, which is unlike most reporters or even teams of reporters that normally have to provide new content daily or weekly. Robby's team instead has the luxury of time and Robby indulges in patience.

Liev Schreiber (Defiance and Salt) co-stars as Martin Baron aka Marty, the new editor who is overseeing a lot of the newspaper's content. He pushes Robby's team to delve into the Catholic priest, sexual abuse cases. At first, he's concerned about having to make cuts and lay-offs at the paper, but he sees the sexual abuse cases as an opportunity to do something that would connect with the readers. He doesn't seem to be all that social, but he is certainly a dedicated journalist.

Like an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the film, directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, plays out like a police procedural. It starts with Marty insisting that the paper file a lawsuit to get court records from a sexual abuse case, connected to a specific lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci. Everyone calls it as the newspaper suing the church. This starts to draw a line in the sand, and the plot involves trying to get people to cross that line and join the reporters to bring the truth to light.

There's of course interviewing Garabedian and those involved with his case, or rather cases. To this effect, Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher and The Avengers), is like a dog with a bone. Mike is indeed a true news hound. Mike is separated from his wife, so he has a lot of time to devote to his work, and he is devoted. He like most of the reporters is from Boston, East Boston in fact, of Portuguese descent, and feels personal about it once it becomes apparent that this problem in Boston is bigger than they thought.

A lot of the process is going through records and other documents. There's a lot of paperwork at play and McCarthy manages to keep the audience from getting lost in that paperwork. Actually, a big part of the story is the lack of paperwork in certain instances. As with most crimes, what ends up being worse is the cover-up. Robby's team learns of the cover-up through missing paperwork in certain places, which reveals a system of not only corruption but collusion with the law and other officials.

Yet, it's not just officials. What this movie also exposes is a culture that is probably not specific to Boston but centered on Boston in this example. It's a culture that either looks the other way or for some reason accepts these abuses without fighting against it. It boils down to a great quote from Mitchell, delivered perfectly by Tucci, when he says, "It takes a village to raise a child... It takes a village to abuse a child."

The movie only briefly goes into the lurid details of the actual crimes. The real aim is at the culture and making Boston and the people of it a character in various ways. This is also a great example of the kind of journalism many wish was more prevalent, a kind of journalism that values patience, perseverance and perspicacity. It's a kind of journalism that doesn't go along with power but instead challenges it. The film is very idealistic in that regard.

While it's idealistic, it seems like the film could also be labeled sanctimonious. A film like this year's Truth starring Cate Blanchett might be preferred. Yes, the case at the center of this film is more substantial than the one at the center of Truth, but here the case is extremely more black-and-white. By the end, the boundaries are clear and there is very little to learn or explore or even question.

I suppose there could be some question when it comes to the value of patience. A scene which will probably be used for award consideration involves Ruffalo's character going after Keaton's character on the issue of patience. The instinct for journalists is to get the scoop or publish a story first before anyone else, especially in a sanctimonious argument. That instinct is questioned here and it makes the movie all the better.

As a person who works in the field of journalism, not newspapers but television, there's nothing new to ponder here on that level. Truth provides food for thought. Spotlight merely provides illumination for darkness.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some language including sexual references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.


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