Film review: Nuance and casting keep Spotlight on target

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(Spotlight cues up for an Oscar, thanks to an all-star cast that includes Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James, paired Tom McCarthy’s shrewd direction. Photo: Open Roads Films (Spotlight cues up for an Oscar, thanks to an all-star cast that includes Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James, paired Tom McCarthy’s shrewd direction. Photo: Open Roads Films

Arguably the first all-around good film to be released in time for Oscar season, Spotlight is predictably solid in most measurable ways, with one exceptional quality buried so far beneath the surface, perhaps imperceptible to anyone who does not live and work in the world of Boston media, that it’s difficult to tell if director Tom McCarthy intended it or not.

As advertised, Spotlight is an ensemble film that’s up to par with McCarthy’s previous work (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win), and it faithfully captures three of the hottest things in prestige drama these days: the heroic tale of visionaries who changed the world through bravery and hard work, journalists who value the truth above their own careers and sanity, and loving-yet-fake Boston accents. Taken on its own, Spotlight is a solid story of investigative reporters for the world-famous Boston Globe doing their job, which in many cases involves balancing competing interests as much as discovering the truth.

Yet underneath the procedural and emotional examination of the Globe’s Pulitzer-winning 2001 series on the cover-up of child sexual abuse from within the upper echelons of the Catholic Church hierarchy, collective responsibility is a running theme that leaves no person unaccountable, not even its protagonists. Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the editor in charge of the Globe’s team that is dedicated to long-term, deep, committed research and consists of some of the most dedicated and determined reporters in the country.

On the notion that recent developments of a predator priest may be more than yet another bad apple among the clergy, newly appointed editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) assigns the team of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) to investigate. The journalists are startled by how much information was right under their noses and how the entire Boston community sought desired justice yet were betrayed by their local institutions and let down by the media.

Impeccably acted and thoughtfully paced, Spotlight is sure to turn heads for the cohesiveness of its cast (also including John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup), as well as the tasteful lack of flash in depicting the social and technological differences between 2015 and 2001, when the film is set. The acting, as well as costume and set design, are master classes in understated effectiveness.

Few films have employed such a casual yet nuanced appreciation of Greater Boston’s social geography; the upper-class LGBT-friendly South End is not rough-and-tumble Dorchester, and McCarthy knows it. Also refreshing is how the cast does not commit the worst Boston movie sin of all, where everyone tries—and fails—to sound like they grew up within the same three blocks in Southie.

But where the film really shines is in its understanding of how the Globe views itself versus how everyone else views it. Anyone who has paid attention to Boston media will know that the legendary alternative weekly (and tragically discontinued) Boston Phoenix ran many articles on the subject of a possible Archdiocese cover-up that predated the Globe team’s project. In the film, Rezendes even proudly admits that he never knew about any of their coverage because “no one reads the Phoenix.”

Many on the Globe staff are unaware of the many times the victims and other organizations attempted to alert them to this story. As some in the Boston alternative media have noted, there is a culture among some at the Globe that a story does not matter until they decide to run with it. (Full disclosure: My former employer, DigBoston, has run many stories to that effect.)

Again, it’s tough to say whether this observation was intentional on McCarthy’s part because it is so subtle, yet with a uniquely deep perspective on its subject and a keen sense of justice that leaves no level of culpability unexamined, Spotlight is a success on all levels, obvious or not.

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