Spotlight Review

Posted: December 23, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

spotlightWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In the early 2000s, a team of journalists from the Boston Globe exposed the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, not just in Boston, but in the country (and even beyond that). This story was probably one of the most important news events of our life time, and yet it isn’t one I was ever really appreciate. I was around seven years old when all of this started to break out and did not grow up in a Catholic environment. As such, the whole scandal was really beyond my own cognitive awareness. By the time I was aware of such injustice, the sexual abuse of children by priests was common knowledge to the point of cliché. It just seemed like that had always been the way things were. Now, Tom McCarthy and his film Spotlight have come to remind everyone that, while the abuse has a long history, the knowledge of it is only possible thanks to some dedicated journalists.

In 2001, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the leader of an investigative team known as Spotlight for the Boston Globe. The team specializes in long term investigation of major stories and cover-ups. The Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) directs Robinson’s attention to a story of a priest’s abuse and suggests Spotlight looks further into it. Robinson is hesitant at first, but tentatively starts an investigation. He sends his reporters, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) to follow up with a victim, which begins to unravel a far larger history of abuse and cover-ups by the church.

Spotlight starts in an interesting way and only becomes more gripping as the film moves along. The plot itself is, of course, highly engaging and important. It’s fascinating and horribly disturbing to think about the kind of cruelty many priests have engaged in, and the Catholic Church’s cover-up of facts is even more so. Each time one of the spotlight team uncovers a new aspect of the case it just raises the interest in seeing more of the story playout. This is in large part due to the film’s screenplay, written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, which does an excellent job of relaying information to the audience. The film is also smart about avoiding the more Hollywood conventions that often pop up in films like this. Generally speaking, the film avoids glamourizing its protagonists, turning the church into one dimensional villains, and making the journalistic success into an overly triumphant victory. Occasionally, the film does use some slightly manipulative tactics to overemphasize the horribleness of these priests actions (which isn’t really necessary), but these moments are seldom and remain on the side of tasteful.

Tom McCarthy’s directorial style also benefits the grounded and authentic feel. For the most part, McCarthy simply sits back and allows scenes to play out simply without getting in the way. He doesn’t throw unnecessary style, rapid editing, or attention seeking visuals that would distract. In other words, McCarthy allows his story to shine. That being said, I don’t want to suggest that Spotlight is a cinematically boring film, because that isn’t the case either. McCarthy uses a lot of clever framing and blocking choices, and there are even a few montages of research, but they aren’t obtrusive or the focus. The man also seems to have a pretty thorough understanding of news rooms. The art direction avoids glamourizing the lives of these characters at all. The offices are often messy and unkempt, and the building they work in is often not the best. I was also impressed by McCarthy’s ability to hint at larger thematic issues. While the film does place blame on the Catholic Church, McCarthy does note that a lot of reporters could have in fact made a difference years earlier had they chosen to act. Additionally, there is some service to the politicization of the newspaper, namely how certain stories can be overridden by other events, and also how the coming of the internet would shortly completely change the news business.

Finally, it is important to stress the significance of the cast in pulling this whole film off. The film features a ton of actors, some celebrities and some less so, but everyone blends really well in the ensemble. Just as the script and direction are low-key, so too are there performances. Michael Keaton, who just one year ago delivered a highly energetic and large performance in Birdman, is much more reigned in here. All the same, he’s still very commanding and delivers in some key scenes. The show stealer though is Mark Ruffalo who does a really amazing job sinking into his role. I wouldn’t say he’s totally unrecognizable, but his mannerism and speech pattern is entirely different from what I’m used to from the guy. It’s easily the most transformative performance of the cast, but that’s not to discredit the strong work done by the likes of Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, an uncredited Richard Jenkins, and a host of others. It’s a really stacked cast, even the smallest roles are played very well.

Spotlight is not a film that reinvents the cinematic wheel, nor is it particularly ambitious, but that’s okay. Not every great film needs to be some radically unique or grand work; sometimes a film can excel simply through execution; Spotlight is such a film. The script is one of the year’s best, McCarthy’s direction is calculated, and the ensemble cast delivers quietly incredible performances. Is it the year’s best film? Maybe not quite, but it’s earned its place in the discussion.


  1. Dan O. says:

    Nice review PG. Perhaps the best movie of the year. There. I said it.

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