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Spotlight: Fit to print 

Rating: ***1/2

SPOTLIGHT
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Tom McCarthy
STARS Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight (Photo: Open Road)
  • Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight (Photo: Open Road)

There are two obvious reasons why Spotlight is earning near-unanimous raves from critics across the board. The first is a personal one: Like All the President's Men, State of Play and Shattered Glass (once we move past Stephen Glass, of course), it's a celebration of journalistic integrity, presenting its reporters as moral crusaders who will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth. How can a writer, even the lowly ones who pen movie reviews for a living, not respond with pride to this interpretation, particularly when the movie also nails the actual look and feel of a newspaper office back in those halcyon days before massive layoffs turned heavily populated buildings into half-empty crypts? The second reason is of more importance to moviegoers: It's an excellent movie, one of the year's finest. If it isn't quite the match of the peerless All the President's Men, we have to remind ourselves, what is?

Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who's already made two pictures that graced my 10 Best lists (2003's The Station Agent and 2011's Win Win), and co-scripter Josh Singer keep their eyes on the target every step of the way, foregoing any narrative distractions and remaining firmly focused on the team of Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of the sexual abuse being committed on children by members of the clergy. (Correction: Kristen Lombardi of the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix actually broke the story, and the Globe subsequently ran with it. McCarthy acknowledges Lombardi's invaluable contribution in the film, which is more than many of the Globe participants have ever bothered to do.) The abuse has been going on for years, but it takes an outsider — the paper's new (and, pointedly mentioned, Jewish) editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) — to assign the crack Spotlight team, the journalists committed to pursuing long-term stories, to uncover enough evidence to drag the scandal out from the shadows.

And so they go to work, with Spotlight editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) riding herd over reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). Unlike Baron, most have been in Boston for years or all of their lives, and all have ties to the Catholicism that seeps through almost every square inch of the city. For Robby, separating himself from this atmosphere is especially hard, since he regularly plays golf with friends who are deeply involved in the church. But as Sacha interviews now-grown survivors, Matt hits the archives, and Mike attempts to work in tandem with a lawyer (Stanley Tucci) driven to expose the abuse, they discover that the reach of the tragedy extends even further than any of them could have imagined.

A movie that ends up being about the awful abuse of power as much as about that last-gasp period before journalism shifted from being a conduit of reliable information into a circus act of celebrity reporters riding unicycles of distortion and deceit, Spotlight is especially admirable in its restraint, not only in its approach to unsettling material (there are no visual flashbacks to sordid scenes, just disturbingly descriptive dialogue) but also in the relatively muted acting by all concerned. There's no Oscar-clip showboating in this picture, just terrific actors delivering terrific close-to-the-vest performances. In a cast of equals, Keaton probably stands a centimeter taller than the rest, although there's much to be said for Ruffalo's searing intensity.

As noted, Spotlight doesn't quite match All the President's Men, one reason being that McCarthy's no-frills directorial style can't provide the same sort of charged atmosphere or world-shaking gravitas of Alan J. Pakula's masterpiece. And for the sort of rage-against-the-machine fury that this story demands, it also comes second to Deliver Us From Evil, the soul-staining 2006 documentary about Irish priest Oliver O'Grady, who over the course of three decades sexually molested dozens, maybe hundreds, of children (one as young as nine months old) throughout the state of California. But ultimately, these are mere asides. Spotlight may celebrate journalism at its best, but in also exposing humankind at its worst, it remains topical and relevant as long as those in power continue to prey upon those powerless to stop them.

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