A priest, a pedophile and a child molester walk into a bar, and that was just the first guy. Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams and Academy Award nominees, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci star in Spotlight.

SpotlightCast of Characters:
Michael Rezendes – Mark Ruffalo
Walter “Robby” Robinson – Michael Keaton
Sacha Pfeiffer – Rachel McAdams
Marty Baron – Liev Schreiber
Ben Bradlee, Jr. – John Slattery
Matt Carroll – Brian d’Arcy James
Eric MacLeish – Billy Crudup
Mitchell Garabedian – Stanley Tucci

Director – Tom McCarthy
Screenplay – Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Producer – Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin & Blye Pagon Faust
Rated R for some language including sexual references

The Boston Globe has just hired their new Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Coming from Miami, he’s not a Boston homer, and he’s also Jewish, so as the ultimate outsider it’s no surprise that feathers will be ruffled across the city when he decides to take on one of Boston’s most longstanding, stalwart institutions – the Catholic Church.

After reading a previous column by the Globe about priests molesting children, Baron feels there’s a bigger story to be told than the one his new company’s touched on here and there, and talks the Globe’s Spotlight team – Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – to followup on the issue. What follows is an investigation that uncovers a decades-long cover-up that would leave the world shaken.

Movies about journalism are not the easiest to pull off, ’cause so often they fall prey to the temptation of turning their investigating protagonists into chest-thumping, halo-wearing saints who think their shit don’t stink. When handled well, we get a Good Night, and Good Luck, The Sweet Smell of Success or Ron Howard’s The Paper. When handled exceptionally well, we get a once in a generation gold standard such as Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men, Network, Broadcast News or Zodiac.

Now added to the hall of prestigious gold standards is Spotlight.

Co-writer/director Tom McCarthy has already carved out quite a nice filmography with The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win (he also co-wrote Up, one of Pixar’s best films). Earlier this year, he gave us Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler, which I finally caught on Netflix not too long ago, and highly regret doing so. With Spotlight, McCarthy delivers his strongest film to date, both a love letter to investigative journalism and a harrowing reminder of the sex abuse cover-up that, when finally revealed, brought one of the world’s most powerful institutions to its knees.

Unlike the countless of documentaries about the Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal, Spotlight keeps the scope contained to just Boston (though at the end of the film, a list of all the affected parishes shows just how far-reaching around the world the scandal was). As limited as the scope is, it still bears no negative effect on the devastating impact brought on by the scandal and the years spent covering it up. While the crimes committed are obviously central to the story, the perspective is from neither the victims nor the clergy, but the Spotlight journalists uncovering their story (similar to how All the President’s Men was from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s perspective). McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer guide us through the investigation with razor-sharp focus as every source, every heartbreaking interview, every revelation and every doggedly-earned document matters in building this case.

Among its many strengths, Spotlight features an incredibly gifted cast from top to bottom. While, aside from perhaps Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci, none of their performances are what I’d call showy, their work nonetheless is still compelling. Michael Keaton continues his post-Birdman comeback in fantastic form as the head of the Spotlight team. Ruffalo is in full “For Your Consideration” mode, but the intensity of his emotions comes off as honest instead of forced preening for the camera. Rachel McAdams and the underrated Liev Schreiber, both effectively understated here, deliver some of the finest work of their careers.

What truly makes Spotlight a great movie is McCarthy’s approach. His attention to detail from the spot-on sense of time and place (like Good Will Hunting, The Departed and Gone Baby Gone before it, Spotlight brings the city of Boston to life) to even the smallest aspects is impeccable, and the thriller-like pacing allows the film to increasingly engaging as a new turn in the case is revealed. You know you’re in the presence of a great film when this is pretty much two hours of phone calls and documents chasing, yet you’re still hanging on every moment wondering what’s gonna happen next. Most importantly, McCarthy avoids milking melodrama out of the story without lessening the heinousness of the crimes committed. Given what the story’s about, he could’ve easily transgressed down a more emotionally manipulative path.

Also key, as I touched on a couple paragraphs back, the characters aren’t portrayed as self-righteous crusaders. They’re certainly passionate about this story, particularly Ruffalo’s Rezendes, but they’re also human, and their connection to the Catholic Church in some form or another serves as the conflict in their pursuit of the truth, be it their childhood upbringing, a close relative’s dedicated ties, a key turn of events bringing one’s family and journalistic ethics together, or the fact that Boston, a heavily Catholic community, might not take kindly to their story.

Benefiting greatly from Tom McCarthy’s deft direction and one of the best ensemble casts of the years, Spotlight superbly builds an involving case around a touchy subject still fresh in everyone’s minds, eschewing melodrama and character lionizing for a strong, insightful look at the journalistic process. Not only is it one of the top films of 2015, but in the pantheon of great journalism movies, it sits with the very best.

I give Spotlight an A+ (★★★★).

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