New drama shines a ‘Spotlight’ on church abuse

Jacob Judd, Features Editor

At this time of year it’s customary for studios and indie distributors to start rolling out the standard glut of awards baiting, adult oriented, middlebrow dramas that are often little more than an excuse for actors to shout and cry their hardest in hopes of snagging a salary increase via gold statue.

“Spotlight” bucks this trend by actually earning its Oscar buzz. The prerequisites are all there: great actors turning in stellar performances, strong writing, beautiful if understated cinematography etc. What may help “Spotlight” stand the test of time however is the direction co-writer/director Thomas McCarthy takes the story, or rather the one he doesn’t.

“Spotlight” centers on the Boston Globe’s specialized team of investigative reporters who brought international attention to the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests and the coordinated coverup perpetrated by Church officials. Sobering rather that scandalous, we follow the Spotlight team as they wade through an ocean of lawyers, public records, church documents, victim interviews until it culminates in the publication of an exposé that would ultimately earn the Globe a Pulitzer.

The subject matter could easily have led the film to be lurid, melodramatic or even exploitative. Instead, McCarthy allows the cold hard facts of the case to speak for themselves. As the reporters peel back the layers of corruption and understand the full scope of the conspiracy, their horror becomes our own.

This is not to say that the film ignores the victims themselves, but like the Spotlight team themselves, the film holds back from wallowing in the immediately grabbing, emotional details so that it can focus on the systemic issues that led to such widespread abuse in the first place.

“Spotlight” is a true ensemble piece and every performer onscreen is bringing their best work to the table. Michael Keaton, fresh off the success of last year’s comeback vehicle “Birdman” solidifies his reputation as one of our finest character actors. Rachel McAdams proves exactly how underserved she was by “True Detective’s” embarrassing second season. Her work here is stellar.

One particularly impassioned speech by Mark Ruffalo’s character, Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, will draw comparisons to his role in last year’s “The Normal Heart,” where he also played a firebrand writer. An important distinction though: Where his character in “Normal Heart” was an activist who’d scream in the faces of the powers that be, Rezendes feels more like a detective who’s forced to withhold action in the name of playing the long game.

Ultimately, “Spotlight” is a chilling journalism procedural in the vein of “All the President’s Men” and “Zodiac” that successfully builds tension until the audience is forced to confront the true horror at its heart: an entire community of church goers, lawyers, church officials, and willfully ignorant journalists who allowed an unspeakable breach of trust to go on for decades.

It’s also one of the most engrossing, substantive and quietly gut wrenching films of the year.