Movie Review: Spotlight (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
Smart, perfectly paced, and with uniformly good work from the cast—including standout performances from its supporting players—“Spotlight” is one of my top picks for the best films of 2015.
The “Spotlight” of the title refers to the small investigative reporting team of the Boston Globe which broke the story of the decades-long systemic cover-up of pedophile priests in the Boston Archdiocese. Their story precipitated revelations of similar horrors in the Catholic Church around the world.
(Personal disclosure: these revelations were one of the factors that caused me to leave the church after a quarter century as an adult practicing Catholic.)
The story is kicked off when a new editor-in-chief from outside of Boston (Liev Schreiber) arrives at the Globe. In sifting for important stories he identifies that of a pedophile priest and assigns the Spotlight team to delve deeper into it. The fact that he is Jewish makes some people suspicious of his motives.
The Spotlight editor (Michael Keaton) is skeptical at first that there is much of a story there, but puts his team of reporters (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James) to work. Gradually they become aware that there may be more priests involved—at first it looks like 13, then 87. The team tries to verify this information while navigating roadblocks from the Boston elite and personal issues regarding their various relationships with the church.
“Spotlight” is smart in a number of ways. Foremost is that it does not identify a single person as a villain, but spreads the blame widely. Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston at the time, is not a sympathetic character in the movie (neither was he well-liked in the American Catholic Church at the time), but the problem is shown to go deeper than the decisions of one man.
It is also smart in that the dialogue is intelligent, the characters complex, and the story, while simplified to make it easier to follow (investigative reporting is not a linear process), isn’t dumbed down into following a generic formula.
The pacing of the movie is meticulous, swinging between the investigative actions of the reporters and scenes of conversations in which things are sorted out for clarification. This serves both to keep the movie moving and give the audience a chance to assimilate new information. Credit is due to director Tom McCarthy, co-writers McCarthy and Josh Singer, and editor Tom McArdle for their mastery here.
An outstanding cast creates a set of characters who are clearly differentiated yet believable. The differentiation is important because there are so many characters to follow, but it can become tricky if it degenerates into stereotypes. They manage to pull it off admirably.
Michael Keaton centers the movie as an experienced professional both committed to bringing out the truth and conscious of the importance of the church in Boston and all the good work it does. He guides the audience through both worlds, that of the newspaper profession and that of the church leadership, with an impressively nuanced and understated performance.
Mark Ruffalo does his intense, twitchy thing as a reporter driven by an outraged desire for justice, while Rachel McAdams balances this as a woman with a devout grandmother who is more shocked and saddened by what she learns.
But the real stars of the picture are the supporting players, many of whom make indelible impressions with limited screen time. Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan give contrasting portraits of attorneys, one the overworked underdog, another a slick defense attorney, and the third a fixture of the local establishment.
Neal Huff is appropriately jarring as an agitated abuse survivor who now leads a support and advocacy group. Michael Cyril Creighton is more subdued and touching as a gay man still sorting out the issues raised by his abuse. And Timothy Mooney is creepy in just the right way as a pedophile priest, not sinister but oddly naïve about his actions, an aging man with a childlike understanding of sexual relations.
But the most compelling moment of acting from a supporting player was that of the man who played a fellow Catholic school alumnus of Michael Keaton’s character. I had to do some investigative reporting to discover his name, as the scene went by in under a minute and I didn’t catch the character’s name. After nearly an hour of digging around and checking photos on the internet, I discovered the actor is actually a dentist, Anthony Paolucci.
In the scene he meets Keaton in a café, not realizing the purpose of their get-together. When Keaton raises the question of his abuse, Paolucci’s face freezes. That shot alone was worth the price of the movie. A marvelous piece of acting.
P.S. After posting this review, I got a call from Mr. Paolucci thanking me for leaving a complimentary message on his website. He told me he’d been acting for 25 years, mostly on stage, but also in TV and movies. He had a role in “Brotherhood” as a corrupt politician. If you know of an agent, Mr. Paolucci is always open to considering new roles.