As the usual January-February sludge continues to ooze into theaters, I’ve taken comfort in viewing several of the award contenders released toward the end of 2015.
Last year was easily one of the most remarkable for movies in a long time, with many quality films being released and finding an audience. I struggled to keep up, and missed a number of the movies I was hoping to catch, so when I saw that “Spotlight” had swung back into town on the heels of six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, I jumped at the chance to see it.
I was pleased to see a decently sized audience at the midweek afternoon showing I attended (and surprised to see a former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court amble in alone with a bucket of popcorn and a soda and take a seat behind me). The story, which follows the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team as it investigates allegations of rampant child sexual abuse in the city by Roman Catholic priests, has the allure of a good scandal. But the film, which is based on actual events, doesn’t answer the one question I surely can’t be alone in wondering – the question of how that many priests could have behaved so deviantly – but instead focuses on the efforts of the Globe’s small group of investigative journalists to crack the story.
I initially thought “Spotlight” would be difficult to review, as it’s a not a highly cinematic film. For most scenes, director Tom McCarthy simply placed his camera where it needed to be and set his actors in motion. There’s no pumped up drama, no romantic subplots, and no bogus suspense. What’s more, McCarthy, who co-wrote the script, only touches on the lives of the Globe’s journalists. Instead, he gives us just enough details about each character to show how investigating the story is affecting them on a personal level.
The same goes with the acting. McCarthy didn’t give his cast, which includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Adams, among other outstanding talents, many opportunities to dial their performances up, but instead required a quiet intensity from each actor. When the moment arrives for one character to verbally unleash the frustration that has been boiling up inside of him, McCarthy and company had earned it. Still, McCarthy and his cast generate a lot of drama without those heated scenes.
Rather than being about the kind of cinematic moments that drive a lot of films, the heart and soul of “Spotlight” is found in its unwavering focus on telling its essential story. The journalists involved never deviate from their directive, which is the publication of an explosive story that will not just impact the lives of the people it covers but a global religious institution that claims over a billion members worldwide. Likewise, the movie never changes course, but instead tells a difficult, but honest and compelling, story without trumpeting its importance or making artificial heroes out of its participants.
The end result is a sobering experience that demonstrates the power of the press to expose wrongdoing. The film closes with a staggering list of the cities around the world in which priests were discovered to have abused children. You could have hit me in the chest with a ton of bricks, and I would have felt less crushed.
There’s a lot to enjoy while viewing “Spotlight.” Michael Keaton and Lee Schreiber, who play the head of the Spotlight team and the new managing editor of the Globe, respectively, are a pleasure to watch. Also, McCarthy does good work behind the camera, showing an almost preternatural talent for getting what’s needed out of each scene. He also did great work at his keyboard, writing a dialogue-driven movie that never drifts off course or outpaces the audience.
Watching the journalists pursue and uncover leads was another exciting element of “Spotlight.” Based on this criteria alone, it is by far the best film about newspaper journalism since “All the President’s Men” (1976).
“Spotlight” has already completed its second run in theaters. But it will be released on DVD and via Amazon’s streaming service on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Expect it to be available from Netflix and Redbox a month later. Please do the legwork necessary to see this exceptional film.
Four stars out of four. Rated R for some language, including sexual references.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.