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'Spotlight' Shows Journalists At Their Finest, Uncovering Church Sex Abuse

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 12, 2015 11:00PM

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James in 'Spotlight' (Photo: Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films)

It's an iffy critical argument to say a good film needed to be great, but that's the nagging feeling after seeing Spotlight. The movie does an excellent job of dramatizing The Boston Globe's landmark investigation into widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Yet, as important as that story remains, the movie serves as a success story of the past instead of the vital call to action for the present it might have been.

That call to action would be to remind viewers that the deep-digging journalism portrayed in Spotlight demands considerable time and resources, both in terms of staff and budget. It's a reminder our current more-for-less media climate desperately needs.

The era of mainstream media dominance was certainly plagued with unhealthy limitations. But for all the wonderful variety of today's virtually unlimited online options, fewer advertising dollars spread over an ever-expanding media universe has meant less for dedicated news operations to spend on hard, difficult reporting. If video killed the radio star, Craigslist may have killed off future Woodwards and Bernsteins.

Only time will tell if that's true, but the shadow of All the President's Men (which dramatized the Watergate investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) certainly hangs heavy over Spotlight. Like that 1976 classic, it takes a very understated, procedural approach as it brings to life the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, which revealed widespread abuse of children by clergy throughout Boston churches and across the nation.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and co-writer Josh Singer consulted with most of the real journalists portrayed in the film and their homework paid off. As in All the President's Men, the offices of Spotlight feel like real newsrooms: bland in d├ęcor and a little too bright in lighting. Nothing seems overtly altered to create more dramatic imagery. Location shooting and subtle period details (the story is set mainly in 2001) add to the verisimilitude. The screenwriters also deserve major kudos for squeezing a novel's worth of background into a cohesive, average-length motion picture.

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in 'Spotlight' (Photo: Open Road Films)

A top-notch ensemble cast generally serves the material well. Liev Schreiber, as the Globe's new editor Marty Baron, and Stanley Tucci, as a lawyer representing victims and skeptical of the paper's commitment to the story, are especially strong. Michael Keaton, coming off his reemergence as an A-lister in Birdman, is far more convincing as a veteran newsman here than he was 21 years ago in Ron Howard's formulaic The Paper. Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James both admirably portray the combination of persistence and sensitivity good reporters have. John Slattery, Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan are also excellent in smaller, but key roles.

Strangely, the odd man out is Mark Ruffalo. One of the best and most naturalistic of American movie actors of recent years, Ruffalo has stumbled twice this year. While far less mannered than his performance in the little-seen indie Infinitely Polar Bear, his work in Spotlight does seem a tad showy and artificial when compared to his fellow cast members.

Still, with mainly superior execution in front of and behind the cameras, it may be nitpicking to criticize a film set 14 years ago for not being more of the moment. But Spotlight does feel like a belated cinematic victory lap for the Globe principals (deserving as they are), rather than McCarthy and company conveying what their work means to journalism today. By contrast, Watergate is very old news, but All the President's Men still feels like a definitive statement on journalists speaking truth to power.

At one point in Spotlight, a billboard for the then-hot internet provider AOL is shown looming over the paper's offices. It's a sly nod to the huge upheaval that was just beginning to eat away at the old journalism model. But maybe this film required more than a sly nod.

The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is unquestionably one of the major news stories of our time. But without vigilant reporting, the milestone stories of the next generation might never be known. Despite its significant strengths, Spotlight feels just a little too safe for its own good...and maybe for ours.

Spotlight. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by McCarthy and Josh Singer. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci. 128 minutes. Rated R.

Opens Friday, Nov. 13 at theaters nationwide, with multiple advance screenings Thursday night.