Based on the 2001 Pultizer Prize winning Boston Globe exposé of corruption within the Catholic Church, Tom McCarthy’s latest film ‘Spotlight’ is both a sprawling study of a disturbing issue and an intimately small human drama.
Credit for that difficult mix goes to director and co-writer McCarthy, bouncing back from last year’s bizarre misstep ‘The Cobbler’ to underline his status as one of the most subtle and humanist filmmakers in America.
At the core of the film is the Spotlight investigative journalism team from The Boston Globe, played here by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James. The new editor (Liev Schreiber) insists that the team drop the story they’re working on to focus on the latest molestation scandal coming out of the local Catholic Church. Starting by interviewing fringe eccentrics like Stanley Tucci’s aggressive lawyer as well as a number of vocal victims, the team slowly uncovers a story deeper than intended. Rather than merely reporting on the specific tragedy that sparked their investigation, they uncover the systemic white-washing and relocation of priests accused of molestation perpetrated by the Catholic Church for decades. So wide reaching was the corruption that the team were able to identify no less than 70 active priests with this disturbing past in the Boston area alone.
Obviously, that’s not exactly the pleasant subject matter of light afternoon cinematic entertainment. ‘Spotlight’ is indeed a difficult movie to watch, but also a powerful and emotional one. As gut-wrenching as the material might be, it’s all too common (as the jaw-dropping number of cities to report similar scandals listed in the end credits proves) and too often hushed up and ignored. By using an almost ‘All the President’s Men’ style investigative entry point into the material, McCarthy finds an appropriate dramatic arc that gradually reveals the issue to the audience without any grandstanding or melodrama. The film has built-in tension, yet without ever stretching beyond identifiable and even mundane reality.
That delicate brand of movie realism has long been Tom McCarthy’s strength as a filmmaker in such titles as ‘Win Win’ and ‘The Station Agent’. He has a way of pulling familiar dramatic structures down to the awkward rhythms of life, and that’s vital to the story here. While the cast is uniformly excellent (with Ruffalo’s twitchy reporter and Tucci’s screaming lawyer stealing the most attention), there are dozens of speaking roles and a vast plot to untangle. In what could have felt like a collection of actors exchanging exposition, McCarthy and his cast somehow ensure that every character feels fully formed and every scene feels messily real. The result makes an emotionally intense film all the more devastating.