Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 15, 2015 10:15 am 
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Quiet sensation

Spotlight is a realistic film about a journalistic investigation so intentionally lacking in style it doesn't even call attention to its lack of style. And the fine acting by John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and the other principals in the story is likewise understated. A single exception, fun but it stands out by a mile (till it doesn't) is Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, the motor of this true story. At first Marty is so lacking in personality Schreiber's turn does stand out and it's amusing. We could go on at length about what is not in McCarthy's film (coauthored with Josh Singer), which concerns the sensational, extensive, Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe series about child abuse by local members of the Catholic clergy. There are no gruesome flashbacks. There are no visits to dark, haunted houses. There are no long car rides in the rain. There are no intense arguments about conflicting theories. Things are not left in the air. This is not Zodiac. Nothing wrong with Zodiac, but that's not what's going on here.

Actually Marty stands out for another reason besides Schreiber's tongue-in-cheek blankness. He is an outsider, not from Boston, not a baseball fan, not a Catholic but a Jew. Just brought in as an editor of the Globe, he is new on the scene. He can't be bought. Get-acquainted meetings with the local Cardinal and other august Boston authorities accustomed to having their way leave him cold. He has a fresh point of view. He sees there have been some cases of child abuse by priests, and he thinks there might be a story. Well, there's a story, alright, though the journalists take quite a while to realize how big a one. This is what the film is about. It proceeds so meticulously and in so many separate steps that when it's over you feel like you've watched a miniseries.

"Spotlight" is the name of the small Globe investigative team that Marty puts on the story, urging them to act fast. They don't like this, because they're used to finding their own stories and taking a long time. Surprisingly perhaps, though the sex is not shown but only described by victims like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and a priest, the film is more graphic and specific than the gruesome, emotionally wrenching depictions in The Boys of St. Vincent's, which shows boys being abused at an orphanage. It is also interesting and important that we hear from a victim who grew up to be gay, and vividly explains how disturbing it is to have gotten his introduction to sex through abuse. Maybe this is just information, however hard to handle, and not drama. That's how the film works, because it's about what the newsmen are doing, not the events they're drawing out. And there's a purity to the story because it is happening in the early 2000's (almost derailed by 9/11) when print journalism was more alive and the Internet was not so dominant.

What remains in the mind as much as the abuse is what the journalists are fighting, the effort to repress it -- and hence the faces and voices of The Powers That Be, the politicos and Catholic hierarchy who expect Marty's and Spotlight's investigation to obediently hush itself up. And the lawyers. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, even he in his way unobtrusive), who has been struggling to bring these cases to light for years, and a lawyer, Macleish (Billy Crudup, wonderfully creepy and ambiguous), who, not the only one, once tried to call this phenomenon to the newspaper's attention, but has since made turning around and hushing up abuse suits into a personal cottage industry. It's all part of a story whose beauty is its complication and its realism, its nerdy obsession with files, phone calls, and court releases of information, all the details that tease the story out.

The investigation proceeds on different levels. Above the Spotlight reporters on the case Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is their Spotlight boss, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton). Above him, above the editor Marty Baron, is the deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), son of the Watergate guy. As we move up we feel the pressures from Power and the temptation to comply with them more strongly. At the "bottom,"with less to lose, where the nitty gritty investigative action is, are Pfeiffer and the passionate, self-destructively committed Rezendes. He is like a rubber toy that keeps popping back. Like the rest Ruffalo is more than usually tamped down but his sweat and intensity give the film some of its tensest moments. But without his Globe superiors resisting pressure and supporting him the story would have died, as it had before.

Those tense moments with Rezendes of course are needed. But this is a film about content. If you are not really paying attention, if you don't really care about both the issues and the details, it's wasted on you. If you do care and do pay attention, it's one of a small handful of the best movies ever made about journalism. But focusing on content, fact, and ideas is so rare that many will just think this is a competent but drab effort. Hiding under the drabness is one of the year's best American films.

Spotlight,, 128 mins., debuted at Venice 3 Sept. 2015; also Telluride and Toronto. Limited US theatrical release began 6 Nov. UK 29 Jan. 2016. Screened for this review 7 Nov. at Regal Union Square, NYC.

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