Spotlight: Journalism docudrama an instant classic

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that shows its viewers the power of no-frills, no-nonsense drama in a way that just smacks you in the face, shakes you awake and says “This is what good cinema is truly about.”

“Spotlight” is one of those films.

Tom McCarthy’s film, based on a script he co-wrote with Josh Singer, follows the four person Spotlight investigative reporting team of the Boston Globe as they discover a massive cover up by the Catholic Church to hide Boston area priests who used their position to sexually assault children.

Their work, done over the course of months-long investigation in 2001-02, culminated in a Pulitzer Prize award for the Globe team as well as massive legal settlements for the hundreds of abuse victims across the Boston archdiocese and thousands of victims nationwide.

While the film follows real life events, “Spotlight” focuses on the reporters building the story, rather than the acts of the priests themselves in much the same way that the iconic journalism film “All The President’s Men” followed Woodward and Bernstein and not the Nixon administration’s downfall following the Watergate break-in.

“Spotlight” is a love letter to journalism in its truest form, when hard-working, well intentioned reporters set out to cover important stories that aren’t easy to tell. McCarthy’s film follows the team’s investigation from the fringes inward, unpeeling layers of the scandal like an onion in a way that hasn’t been done since “All The President’s Men.”

Probably the biggest achievement for McCarthy as co-writer and director is how “Spotlight” takes a relatively mundane, dialogue-heavy plot structure and molds it into engaging, vibrant cinema. Few other films could have made searching through thousands upon thousands of church and legal documents as intriguing as “Spotlight” does.

With as dialogue heavy of a film as “Spotlight” is, its success lives and dies by its ensemble cast, led by the four person Spotlight team which features Academy Award nominees Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton as well as one of Hollywood’s best young actresses in Rachel McAdams.

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Ruffalo plays the dogged veteran reporter struggling with the moral and religious implications of his team’s investigations with ease, bringing the most complexity to his character out of any of the film’s 10 major performances. His scenes interviewing Stanley Tucci’s Mitch Garabedian are some of the best segments in the entire film and serve as a reminder to younger audiences that Ruffalo has some serious acting chops when he’s not trampling around as the Incredible Hulk in the “Avengers” movies.

His performance, along with Keaton’s as team leader ‘Robby’ Robinson, should earn him a well deserved Academy Award nomination alongside Matt Damon of “The Martian” and Leonardo DiCaprio of “The Revenant” in the lead actor category, though many have campaigned for all the “Spotlight” cast members in supporting categories arguing that the film doesn’t have a true lead.

Keaton should be a shoo-in as well in the supporting actor race, which boasts an increasingly crowded field along with Mark Rylance of “Bridge of Spies,” Sylvester Stallone of “Creed” and Idris Elba of “Beasts of No Nation.”

McAdams also fares well as the team’s lone female reporter, a position that doesn’t make her a lesser member but aides her as she is able to compassionately draw information from many of the film’s most prominent sources, the boys now men who were victims of assault by their priest.

All three lead reporters – Ruffalo, Keaton and McAdams – take turns serving as the film’s catalyst and it’s difficult to separate these performances from each other, which is why “Spotlight” should be a lock to win any best ensemble cast awards.

The secondary characters of “Spotlight” including Globe bigwigs played by Liev Schreiber and John Slattery and sources played by Jamey Sheridan and Stanley Tucci help round out the film’s stellar cast in a production where each scene is only valued by its weakest on screen performer. “Spotlight” has no weak links.

Aside from one climatic scene in the film’s later stages that will ultimately serve as Ruffalo’s highlight reel for Oscar voters, “Spotlight” opts for substance over style, meticulously driving forward scene by scene as viewers hop from one piece of the investigation to another as the Spotlight team uncovers it.

The film also serves as a love letter to Boston, with McCarthy taking painstaking care to ensure that each and every detail within “Spotlight” feels regionally centered around one of the nation’s most tight-knit cities.

Understanding Boston during the time of the investigation is a key element in the viewing experience, giving moviegoers added insight into the difficulties of pursuing a story in a town where silence and unquestioned loyalty are primary virtues.

In the same way, McCarthy’s film is perhaps the most authentic film about the inner workings of newspaper journalism in more than 20 years. Newsroom scenes were shot largely in the actual offices of the Boston Globe with actual Globe reporters in the background.

Everything about how reporters interacted, interviewed sources and collaborated feels real in a way most films about the profession haven’t been able to match. “Spotlight” joins a pantheon of elite newspaper journalism films alongside “Citizen Kane,” “Zodiac” and the quintessential “All The President’s Men.”

Not only is “Spotlight” one of the year’s top two or three movies, it’s perhaps one of the five most important films released in the past several years.

The film serves as a reminder to its viewers both of the need for quality, well researched journalism in a “give it to me now” news era and of the virtues of simple, yet effective movie-making.

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