Review: Michael Keaton leads an incredible ensemble in Tom McCarthy’s ‘Spotlight’

TELLURIDE – Like any creative endeavor a film is the sum of its parts.  In the most elementary terms it needs a screenplay as a base, a cast to bring the script to life and a director to orchestrate the pieces into something of considerable impact.  Excuse the hyperbole, but Tom McCarthy's “Spotlight” is an example of when all those pieces fit together almost perfectly.

In 2001, the Boston Globe began an investigation into allegations of a systematic cover up by the local Catholic archdiocese of multiple priests who had sexually abused children at their parishes.  The investigation was conducted by the Globe's Spotlight team, a group of journalists who dedicate months or years looking into just one specific case with the hope that it can somehow foster change in the community.  Work on this particular story coincided with two noteworthy events, the arrival of new editor Martin Baron (played by Liev Schreiber) and the tragic events of Sept. 11.  The latter only delayed its discovery, but the former unexpectedly empowered the team to focus on finding evidence that proved the Church's actions came directly from the top of the organization's hierarchy.  

Written by Josh Singer and McCarthy, “Spotlight” begins with a newsroom skittish over Baron's arrival.  The veteran newspaperman had worked at the New York Times and the Miami Herald, but with no Boston roots the Globe's staff greets him with some apprehension. Feature columnist Eileen McNamara (Maureen Keiller) had written a piece that discussed retired catholic priest John Geoghan, a man accused of sexually abusing more than 100 boys. 25 defendants had recently brought a civil lawsuit against Geoghan and McNamara”s story pointed out that the documents about the abuse were under court-ordered seal.  Baron wonders why no one has challenged the order in court and puts the Spotlight team on the case.

Baron wants to see if they can prove the systematic cover-up in the local archdiocese.  The only way he can see real change occurring is if knowledge of decades of the abuse was known at the top.   In any other city, this might have gotten the whole newsroom excited, but in Boston the conflicts are everywhere.  McCarthy enforces the obvious suspicion that almost every staff member has a connection to the Catholic Church either through their upbringing, schooling or family members who still go to mass four days a week.  But as the team”s investigation grows so does their anger.   Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) discovers the church has a secret house for the “retired” priests around the block from his family”s home.  Sacha Pfeiffer  (Rachel McAdams) is so unnerved by the hundreds of victims she interviews that she stop attending mass altogether.  And, in a key moment, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) passionately pleas with his editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), to let them publish the information they have already compiled to protect the public from these priests.   Benson, very much in line with Baron”s edict, wants to wait.  He has one more source he needs to corroborate the larger conspiracy and, sadly, it”s someone he knows all too well.

The right ensemble can elevate a film to greatness (see “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last year) and McCarthy is gifted with a cast that knows they are there to support a fantastic script, not supplant it.  There are no overblown theatrics, no one trying to play the drama more than what it is on the page.  A perfect example of that is Stanley Tucci”s turn as Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for many of the victims. It”s a small role, but he subtly conveys the frustration of a man who believes a whole city has conspired against his clients for decades.  Garabedian is known as quite a character in real life and while Tucci hints at those aspects of his personality he makes him a believable human being first.  It”s the least “Stanley Tucci” Tucci has been in quite awhile and, frankly, that”s a compliment.

While Ruffalo, Schrieber and McAdams are also superb it”s Keaton whose steady hand keeps you riveted to the investigation on screen (even if you know the outcome already).  Robinson is a legendary figure for his work at the Globe and Keaton finds a way to let you know early on that his feelings on the investigation are complex and personal.  It”s the sort of choice that infuses Robinson”s admission before the final story is published with an emotional gravitas that could easily feel forced in the wrong hands.

It”s certainly fair to describe “Spotlight” as a newsroom procedural.  And it obviously highlights the long held belief by old school reporters that news organizations that invest in these sort of investigative pieces aren”t just contributing to the reputation of their outlet, but giving back to the community.   What McCarthy and Singer have also created though is a film that chronicles the far-reaching and dangerous influence of the Catholic Church in Boston.  It serves not just as warning for big cities with strong Catholic ties, but for any city or town where the line between church and state is beginning to fade.   Will there be news operations similar to the Globe”s Spotlight team to uncover these sort of cyclical abuses in the future?  “Spotlight” doesn”t fixate on what is a difficult financial debate for many companies, but it can only help the cause.

“Spotlight” opens in limited release on Nov. 6.