After last year’s stunningly bad Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler, writer-director Thomas McCarthy has returned to form with Spotlight, chronicling the journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s, earning plenty of well-deserved praise along the way. Boasting a cast so star-studded that Stanley Tucci is relegated to (and brilliant in) a supporting role, Spotlight combines acutely focused and paced writing with too many great performances to count. With a tenacity that makes All the President’s Men (1976) look like child’s play, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, almost guaranteed a second Oscar nomination in as many years) and his team at the Boston Globe desperately seek the truth behind long-running sex abuse by Catholic priests and the seemingly endless string of intimidation and plea-bargaining that kept it hidden from the public eye for decades. As the Spotlight team’s investigation leads them to dig deeper into Boston’s most shameful secret, every turn of the plot seems to invite another scene-stealing performance as supporting players like Billy Crudup (playing slick attorney Eric MacLeish, who represented many of the victims and settled most cases confidentially), Liev Schreiber (as new Editor Marty Baron), and journeyman character actor Jamey Sheridan (as Jim Sullivan, an attorney working for the church). In addition to Keaton, Spotlight’s other leading actors, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo (Globe reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes, respectively), are both serious Oscar contenders. McAdams especially lends a human vulnerability to the team as her character meets personally with multiple victims and connects with their individual stories. It is a tribute to her acting as well as McCarthy’s writing (with partner Josh Singer) and direction that these meetings invite the audience to connect with the victims as she does without forcing the issue or exploiting their struggles. Despite continued mainstream success in Marvel’s The Avengers franchise, Ruffalo seems to save his best stuff for smaller productions: think his turn as writer/activist Ned Weeks in HBO’s The Normal Heart last year. He brings the same remarkable passion to his role in Spotlight as he did in Heart while holding that Hulk-like anger just beneath the surface, slowly building his character’s frustration as world events and powerful people conspire to keep the story quiet. Eternally frustrated yet somehow never fully defeated, Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes is at the heart of why films like Spotlight always have and always will exist. But no actor is the true star of this film, and that may be its best quality. While the reporters’ attempts to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church may make up the events of Spotlight’s plot, it is the story itself that is the reason for the film’s existence. Just as Steven Spielberg made Lincoln (2012) to showcase Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting talent and Andrew Dominik made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) for Roger Deakins to flex his considerable cinematographic muscles, so too has Tom McCarthy made Spotlight for the sake of the story it tells. An important film on an important subject, Spotlight is one of the year’s best.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton