Monday, 1 February 2016

Movie Review: Spotlight (2016)



Over the last year and a bit that I’ve had this blog, I’ve talked before about people that are quote-unquote “easy targets”; people involved in films that, for one reason or another, it has become perfectly acceptable to mock. Sure, I still have my stable running joke of Jai Courtney being attached to mostly horrible films, but for the most part I am willing to let this kind of mindset go. The reason for that should be made most obvious by today’s film: Director/co-writer Tom McCarthy’s last film was the previously reviewed The Cobbler, a production that some people are still trying to insist is Adam Sandler’s worst film; and the other co-writer Josh Singer’s last effort was the much-maligned The Fifth Estate. Of course, maybe it helps that the above films are usually attributed as being an Adam Sandler and Benedict Cumberbatch film respectfully, meaning that they get the brunt of the blame for them despite the definite reality of things. In any case, now that they have a genuine winner on their hands, it seems like the need for scorn has ended… that is, until the next one comes along and the process starts all over again. Anyway, tangent, I have an actual film to talk about here: This is Spotlight.

The plot: The Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team, Spotlight, catches wind of a local Roman Catholic priest who, despite being under charges of sexual abuse to minors, is still practicising. Spotlight reporters Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), along with editors Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), dig as deep as they can into the story, uncovering a story of systemic abuse and cover-up that goes all the way to the higher reaches of the Church.

Given how I regularly make it point of dedicating an entire paragraph to my thoughts on the main cast of a given film, I can only hope that I’m just as surprised as you are to say that it’s the supporting cast here that deserves the most praise. That’s not to say that our mains slouch in any way: Keaton is energetic, funny and very subdued all at the same time; Ruffalo brings a certain frenetic drive to the role; McAdams works brilliantly as the emotional core of the team; d’Arcy James gives the events a lot of proximal weight through his performance, even if he gets less devoted screen time to him; Schreiber is very held back but still brings that galvanizing force that helps tie everything together; Stanley Tucci is great as always as one of the many lawyers that gets brought in; and Slattery hits hard as all of the investigative work begins to dawn on him bit by bit. No, why I specify the supporting cast here is because, especially with those who are interviewed to give their own stories of abuse, it is with them that the film is at its most heart-breaking. Neal Huff as survivor group leader Phil Saviano gives a lot of urgency to how he portrays the mindset behind the victims, as does Michael Cyril Creighton as Joe Crowley, but all of them bring more humanity and just raw feels to the production.

Since, even with all that done, I’m not quite done yet with our main cast, I want to go into how it genuinely feels like each member of the Spotlight tea brings something to the overall story, both in terms of the investigation and the film’s thematic ties. Carroll, despite his lessened on-screen presence, provides probably one of the heavier aspects of the overall investigation in just how close it all feels. Throughout the film, we see the large and imposing church shadowing a lot of the film’s events, both literally and metaphorically, and with the unbroken shot of just how close some of these offenders are to Carroll and his family, we get a punch to the gut for how important this work is. Pfeiffer is the emotional centre of the film, being the one who is most seen talking with the victims, including the very nerve-rattling encounter with Rev. Paquin that goes to show just how deep this conspiracy gets. Rezendes represents the majority of the intensity and want for action, being the only one who ends up questioning Robinson’s actions later on as well as following a hefty amount of paper trail to get to the core evidence they needed. Bradlee Jr., while his actions are vaguely put under suspect at one point, is ultimately the innocent party. As he is told more and more information about the story, including just how many are involved, he is legitimately taken aback by just how bad it is without him, and a lot of other people, even realizing it. Baron really ends up being the initial inquisition that lead to the bigger events and larger revelations of the story.

But what about Robinson, the leader of the investigative side of Spotlight? Well, he represents something that could easily be lost in the midst of everything that is unearthed: Patience. The majority of the film, as the rest of the team keeps insisting that they have the evidence that they need, he keeps pushing them to find everything they possibly can. Given how they are ultimately going against what can argued is the single most powerful institute in the world, it makes perfect sense that they would want to be as prepared as possible if they are ever questioned. Of course, both for the film and the true story, said facts were disputed but that’s neither here nor there; I’m talking about a film, not a documentary. Actually, speaking of what my priorities are when talking about the things I do on this blog, why this one character trait works as well as it does is found in another film entirely. Regular readers of my blog will remember how much I gushed over James Vanderbilt’s Truth from last year, with it even making my Best Of 2015 list. Well, for as much as I loved it as a film, and was willing to admit its faults, that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the actions of the actual persons depicted. Because of their, let’s face it, sloppy approach to the story, they were all royally screwed over. Here, because of this meticulous approach to the details, both on part of the characters and the film itself, the information that is discovered makes for that much better drama as is shown on the screen, as well as creating tension on just how much they can sit on before things get out-of-control.

There are two specific scenes in this film that, I reckon, push this film beyond just being a good film and into something of legitimate importance. One involves a conversation between Rezendes and former priest Richard Sipe (played by an uncredited Richard Jenkins), the other a conversation between Robinson and editor for the archdiocesan newspaper Peter Conley (Paul Guilfoyle). The former has Sipe explain that, despite his willingness to out the Catholic Church for its heinous cover-ups, he still considers himself to be a Catholic; he just doesn’t associate himself with the Church proper any more. The latter is an early conversation that involves Conley trying to get the Spotlight team to work together with the Church, whereas Robinson says that they are perfectly capable to do it on their own; with how its read, it comes across like a re-wrapping of the issue concerning the separation of church and state. With these two scenes, something incessantly important is addressed: There is no need for guilt about admitting to what these people have done.

This, admittedly, is one of the main reasons why I have the problem with organized religion that I do, but that shouldn’t make my point any less valid. The people who hid alongside the priests about their actions, some of whom still do so to this day, do so under the impression that they are doing a disservice to their own faith by ratting out those that are higher up. Except faith, in as many ways as it possible to be interpreted, isn’t set in stone; the despicable act that go on within the walls of God’s many houses shouldn’t be kept secret because of some misguided need to defend the Church, and in doing so supposedly defending one’s own faith. This attitude of, as much as I kind of hate the term, blind faith can only make these events continue for even longer; hell, they’re still going on in my own country as I write this. Of course, let’s not forget that this is the same mindset that has films like War Room and God’s Not Dead be praised by Christian audiences because they are made with the denomination’s supposed best interests at heart; blind faith isn’t going to make the prospect of better Christian films come around any quicker either.

All in all, if you want a film that’s intense, fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, look no bloody further. The acting is phenomenal, particularly from the supporting cast who has to tell the more personal stories attached to the investigation, the writing is sharp and knows exactly what it’s talking about when it comes to journalism and the piano score courtesy of industry legend Howard Shore helps tie it all together. On the way home from the cinema, I passed by a Catholic Church; you could measure the shivers that went down my spine on the Richter scale. In order for something to affect me that much, both in the cinema and when leaving it, there has to be some serious cinematic brilliance at work. That, and one of the priests in question sharing a last name with my own pen name (Good God, that was easily one of the more unnerving moments I've ever had) probably helped. As such, this managed to top The Hateful Eight on this year’s list; you’re looking at the new high mark that the rest of the year has to measure up to.

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