Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Film Review: Spotlight (2015)

© Open Road Films | Source: churchmilitant.com

USA; 128 min.; drama, biography, history
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writing: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer; based on a series of articles by The Boston Globe Spotlight team
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

"If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them." - Mitchell Garabedian

While summer is a time for flashy, light movies the darker part of the year comes along more subtle and, well, deep. Whether or not it’s that our attention span is actually shorter during the hot months or whether we are conditioned that way by film studios, the fact remains that heavily plot-based movies are more likely to hit us in winter. One of those films is Spotlight, a promising Academy Award prospect, which truly deserves to be – wait for the bad pun – in the spotlight.

Tom McCarthy’s 2015 motion picture is based on the true story and articles of the 2003 Pulitzer-Prize-winning Spotlight team of The Boston Globe. It provides an in-depth look at the investigation into a grand-scale child molestation scandal within the Catholic Church at the beginning of the new millennium. In a deeply Catholic city such as Boston, this is an even bigger scandal and – as it turns out – much harder to unravel. While there had been reports of isolated incidents before, it is the impulse given by an outsider, new editor Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), which starts a systemic investigation of this problem. So the Spotlight team starts to turn over every rock available – putting in hours at the archives, tracking down witnesses, filing law suits to get access to hidden data – all with significant hindrance and harassment by the local archdiocese. While more and more people come forward (victims, lawyers, private investigators), it also becomes more and more apparent that this is not only a cover-up by the church, but by the whole devoutly Catholic community. Spotlight shows the struggle of a newspaper editorial team to fulfill its duty of informing the reluctant public of their home base, while trying to discretely hold their competitors in the dark. Their thorough research is rewarded with a detailed series of articles that not only document and uncover one of the biggest religious scandals of recent times, but move many people to come forward and finally shed the cloak of secrecy.

Many a movie of the 2015-2016 season comes along with breathtaking visual features, be it action-packed special effects or breathtaking, wide-angle scenic shots. If that’s your thing, Spotlight is not for you. There is no visual spectacle to be found here. Instead there are small, fluorescent-lit rooms, hectic tracking shots of a character trying to meet one deadline or the other, and close-up personal shots that reflect interview situations and in-depth conversations. As I said earlier, Spotlight is all about the story: the shots complement it, the subtle yet nervous score underlines it, and the cast’s performances highlight it. And really, it does not disappoint. There is a scandal that is socially relevant and even more shockingly: true. It is a problem we all have heard of and that in its deceit and inappropriateness is appalling to most of us. It shakes our very foundation of who we can trust and what is good in the world. 

Luckily enough, Spotlight also has a team of morally righteous investigators, who stop at nothing (no personal failures, religious beliefs, old friends and connections) to uncover the truth. As a spectator you can really feel their effort. The movie does a brilliant job at intriguing its audience, inviting us to make guesses about different characters’ loyalties, and grasping the perceived urgency and danger of the situation. While in some parts the conspiracy aspect might seem a little exaggerated and the cover-up on a slightly too grand scale, simply because it’s too awful to be true, I find that it only serves the purpose of highlighting the audacity of the system. Also, if you regard the number of incidents and people involved by the real Spotlight team, it kind of puts things into perspective. Tom McCarthy and his team did an excellent job in trusting the material they had and not making a graphic action flick out of it, but rather a gripping and deep biographical and social thriller.

Apart from the story, it really is the cast that makes Spotlight stand out. It’s not for nothing that the actors took home the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast (the equivalent to Best Picture at the Oscars) this year. Everyone, and I mean everyone, on screen in this film does an excellent job of being true to their roles, but it is the main cast that really brings home the story. Mark Ruffalo plays Mike Rezendes, a Boston journalist of Portuguese decent. His portrayal reflects a stop-at-nothing mentality that makes this assignment not a job, but a personal vendetta as well. His desperation is palpable. Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), another Boston native, is the chief editor of the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe. He went to Catholic school and knows many of the high-ups involved in the scandal. Keaton’s portrayal shows that Robinson is determined to unravel this system of abuse, but is also deeply shocked and ashamed by his own failure to detect a scandal of this scale on his home turf. Rachel McAdams impersonates Sacha Pfeiffer, the only female member of the team. She is close to her grandmother, a devout Catholic, and it hits her hard to have to shatter her grandmother’s beliefs. McAdams does a great job at portraying both the relentless journalist and the compassionate granddaughter. On the one hand, I can’t shake the notion that, because she is a woman, she was given more private and emotional and less tough, investigative screen time. On the other hand, McAdams has one of the most gripping scenes of the movie when her character directly confronts a retired priest about allegations against him. Martin Baron (Live Schreiber) is the new chief editor of The Boston Globe. Born in Florida and of Jewish faith, he is the true outsider that gets the investigation going. His devotion to good journalism and difficulty at getting to know how things are run in Boston are well portrayed. John Slattery is Ben Bradlee Jr., a reluctant believer in the story. As supervisor to the Spotlight team, he is not central to the actual investigation, but Slattery manages to make his unwillingness to believe in the scandal leave a constant air of suspicion against him in the audience’s minds. Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James) is the member of the group with the most personal fear involved. The actor portrays the urgency of a father to protect his and his neighbors’ kids from known perpetrators in their street. Finally, the always amazing Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney of child abuse victims. Tucci’s portrayal is slightly eccentric as per usual, but mellows down to a sincere and fiercely protective personality when talking to the victims. In most cases a big cast has some standout performances, but in the case of Spotlight the star is the ensemble.

Tom McCarthy’s 2015 feature film Spotlight comes along as a visually humble and seemingly understated motion picture. Yet, the seeming simplicity of the movie in reality is a brilliant testament to confidence in a story that is socially relevant and emotionally gripping. There is no need for any flashy extras when you have plot, performers, and audio-visuals all moving in sync to make a thrilling and highly relevant contribution, not only to this year’s award season, but to motion picture history in general.


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