Movie Review: Spotlight


I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that someone can write and direct a really awful film and then, a few months later, come up with an absolutely great film. The awful film here is THE COBBLER, which I reviewed a few months back. The great film is SPOTLIGHT, which was directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy.

In 2001, the New York Times purchased the Boston Globe, and Marty Baron was brought in as the latter paper’s new editor-in-chief. For the Times, it was a risky move. Baron, who came from the Miami Herald where he was the executive editor, knew nothing about Boston or its politics. Moreover, he was Jewish in a city where more than half of the paper’s readership was Catholic. For the Globe’s journalists, it was a nervous time as Baron had a reputation for trimming costs, which included cutting headcount and resources. But, as they quickly discovered, Baron’s reputation differed from reality. He wanted to make the Globe relevant again, at a time when the Internet was just starting to make dents in the bottom lines of newspapers everywhere. Very early on in his tenure, he gave the paper’s hard-hitting investigative reporting group, Spotlight, a new assignment: The Globe had previously run a story – buried in the paper’s Metro section – about a pedophile priest. Although the Archbishop of Boston had subsequently removed the priest from his position and had the courts seal the legal documents to the case, Baron sensed there was something more to the story and he wanted the Spotlight Team to find out what it was.

What started out as an isolated case of sexual abuse of minors involving one priest quickly snowballed into a scandal involving dozens of priests in the Catholic archdiocese in Boston alone, with the cover-up involving the Church, its supporters and its lawyers. The Globe’s exposé, which broke in early 2002, resulted in criminal prosecutions and convictions of five priests, and the resignation of Cardinal Law later that year. It also triggered a discussion about sexual abuse in the Church that echoed around the world including in the office of the Pope. The paper ran more than 600 stories on the subject over the course of year earning the Spotlight Team a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

The movie, SPOTLIGHT, tells the story of that team of investigative journalists – Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, BIRDMAN), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, BEGIN AGAIN), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams, TV’s TRUE DETECTIVE) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – and their assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, TV’s MAD MEN), who worked on the story for over six months before it broke the systemic pattern of abuse and cover-up wide open. The film is an ode to the type of journalism that is sadly dying out under the pressure for instant news and the growing relationship between governments, business interests and the media that influences what we read, hear and see today.

Many critics have drawn positive comparisons to the 1976 film, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, which documents the Washington Post’s pursuit of the Watergate scandal. Interestingly, the executive editor at the Post back then was Ben Bradlee (played by Jason Robards), the father of Ben Bradlee Jr. Neither film is very sexy or glamourous. They just show – quite accurately, it is said – the hours of painstaking research, the pouring over detailed information, the attempts to get people to tell you things that they may not want to tell you (for any number of reasons), and the checking and re-checking of facts that go into this craft.

Baron (Liev Schreiber, FADING GIGOLO) had told the Spotlight Team to focus on the institutional aspect of the abuse; that is, who knew what and when, and what they did or didn’t do about it, rather than simply trying to take down Cardinal Law. The film follows the same dispassionate tack, shying away from gratuitous flashback scenes of abuse or conspiracy and instead focusing on the journalists who patiently gather their evidence and build their story piece by piece. In this era of 24-hour news where the truth often gets trampled on for the sake of being first, it’s comforting to know that there are still teams like Spotlight in place that can keep the bad guys in check and remind us all of how reporting should be.

SPOTLIGHT is storytelling and ensemble acting at its best. Look for it to pick up a few Oscars® on February 28th.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:35.)

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