That Spotlight feels like the epitome of a Law and Order episode genetically crossbred with a 70s-style political thriller is both its salvation and its glass ceiling. A real Indominus Rex of drama, Spotlight is a fleet-footed arcane beast attacking with precision and blunt deadly force. Its movements however are about as predictable as a 40-foot dinosaur. With its classical movie trappings, there’s other reasons it may be likened to a dinosaur. On the one hand, the formula is soothing in its familiarity – anyone who’s seen an episode of network television over the last half-century can immediately tap into the procedural structure at play – but in dealing up this very specific, very familiar hand, Spotlight also affixes a rev limiter to its emotional combustion engine. That it is then able to color in more shades than the finite Crayola 8 without devolving to sentimentality or cheap heroics is what allows Spotlight to stand tall. To peer out from the brush and declare its potency. To be the king of the jungle.
When a new editor with no ties to the community’s Catholic roots, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), takes the reins of the Boston Globe, he steers its capable Spotlight team towards an issue that’s fallen by the wayside: a systematic pattern of child molestation cases perpetrated by Catholic priests. The tight-knit group of in-depth reporters break the surface of the story only to realize they’re uncovered but the tip of an ugly iceberg. In the icy depths beneath, years of suppression, guilt and lies stir like uneasy behemoths. Their salvage job – which has them talking to lawyers, educators, victims and *gulp* priests – is equitably chilling.
What starts as an investigation into a small handful of priests explodes into an absurd circus of offenders. Victims crawl out of the woodwork, mostly eager to help stop the chain of abuse and cover-up, but they’re equally curious as to why it’s taken this long to get on anyone’s radar. The question is fair: what where they waiting for? There’s a subplot that comes from this that had me questioning the cleanliness of the Spotlight crew. In its ability to manufacture distrust, Spotlight is often monstrously successful. The roster of historical archaeologists digging at the case like scum beneath their fingernails consists of a mound of big thespian talent, many of whom are poised to receive hefty Oscar pitches for their receptive turns.
Michael Keaton, back in the Oscar circle in a big way following his narrow loss in last year’s Birdman, plays Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, the team leader of Spotlight. Robby is a bull of a reporter who’s both peckish and (Gregory) Peck-ish. The part is restrained and human and Keaton imbues Robinson with a robust sense of weathered pragmatism and hard-nosed dubiety. You’re always confident that he’s going to do the right thing, but you wouldn’t ever be that surprised if he slugged someone square in the jaw along the way. As more and more names of offenders cross his desk, his disbelief is matched only by his professionalism and unwillingness to bend to corrupting forces. It’s a far more reigned in performance than say Riggan Thomson but even moreso lends itself to the brand of subtle Academy credence that could make for an apologist’s win come February.
Frequent Oscar golden child Mark Ruffalo takes a decidedly different route playing Mike Rezendes, a stubborn but effective crusader for justice. Mike is the bloodhound of the group – his reluctant, gingerly partnership with lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, excellent as always) whips up much of Spotlight’s tension. Putting his nose to the ground to sniff out the scandal at play, Ruffalo is never shy to scrunch up Mike’s face in bloodhound-like fashion or supply him a sort of nerdist speech impediment that would seem fitting for a certain cartoon canine sleuth. You know what I’m getting at.
Examiner’s Jason Roestel called the performance “suspect” and for good reason: it feels impressionist. It feels like a portrayal. It is not, as Jason Alexander coined, “acting without acting.” It took me 3/4 of the film to decide if I hated it or though it was brilliant. I’m still not sure. Having said that, his performance is representative of the film as a whole: it seems like an interpretation up until it proves it is the real thing (or as close to the real thing as a movie can get.) And then it goes straight for the jugular.
The closest Spotlight has to a sure thing is Rachel McAdams who is all but assured a nomination in the uncrowded Best Supporting Actress field. At this point, she stands a strong chance at a win. At this point in the race, she would deserve it too. Like Keaton, her turn is a fine balance of maternal watchfulness and ballsy grit; it’s a pastel drawing of a bloody battlefield. Soothing and yet brimming with zeal. She’s soft, stern and pushing all at the same time. 2016 could be her year to join the gold statue club.
If there’s but one man seeking a comeback with Spotlight though, it’s writer/director Tom McCarthy who just this year saw his sink ship when boarded by Adam Sandler in The Cobbler. Critically derided and pretty much universally disliked, The Cobbler is a fascinating counterpoint to McCarty’s directorial instincts. He shoots Spotlight beautifully and carefully, lending it a classical Golden Age Hollywood touch while navigating some truly dark waters. And insomuch as Spotlight is completely counter to the clumsy footing and insensitive tendencies of that Sandler pic, it is proof of McCarthy’s little engine that could appeal. It’s not often that you see a director earn nominations for both Oscars and Razzies in the same year but I’m willing to bet that McCarthy is gonna make it happen in 2016.
Spotlight boils down to one question: “How do you say no to God?” The cost of uninhibited deference is examined through a harrowing lens with Thomas Newman’s tasteful score offering fleet and eerie tones, padding along with unsettling dissonance. And that’s what Spotlight ultimately is – an overwhelming experience of deeply unsettling dissonance. That forces meant to be trusted beyond all others could fall so far. That institutional wrongs could spiral so wickedly out of control. That priority has shifted towards protecting the culprits and not the victims. It makes your brain and heart ache. It makes you cry out for justice. And it makes the Spotlight team’s impending victory that much sweeter.
CONCLUSION: Spotlight is a classically told investigative thriller featuring confident performances for its able ensemble. Though it adheres to a familiar narrative style, its overwhelmingly excellent craftsmanship makes it a strong feature and an even stronger awards contender.