Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Spotlight (2015)

When the Oscar race was just getting started, many picked “Spotlight” has the early front-runner for Best Picture. An intimately shot drama about an important issue seemed right up the Academy’s alley. “Spotlight” has continued to pick up some big awards but faces stiff competition. But let’s step away from Oscar hype for a second and ask the least important question: Is the movie actually good? Does it address the heavy issues at the center of film with dignity but realism? Is it a stiff bit of Award-hungry flotsam or an actually riveting drama?

In early 2001, the Boston Globe received a new editor. He encourages the Spotlight team, the investigative journalists within the paper, to explore local issues important to the city. The team is encouraged to investigate reports that the local Catholic Church knew pedophile priests were molesting kids and covered it up, doing little to stop the abuse. The deeper the team digs, the more they discover. Soon, the paper is sitting atop a massive conspiracy, involving over seventy priests and hundreds of potential victims.

Many Issues Movies, in my opinion, are too distant from the subject they’re covering. “Spotlight” certainly looks like it’s going in this direction. Journalists investigating events that happened years ago wouldn’t seem to present many visceral opportunities. However, several key moments in “Spotlight” get to the heart of the issue. Several bracing interviews occur. A gay man explains how being molested disturbed his sexual development. That scene begins in a restaurant before the two exits, not feeling comfortable giving such personal details in a public place. The victims discuss the details of the abuse frankly, to disturbing effect. Later, the same reporter goes to a former priest’s door, asking him bluntly if he ever molested anyone. He flatly admits he did. At one point, one of the investigators realizes a “recovery center” for pedophilic priests is just down the street from his home. This prompts him to pin a photo of the home on his refrigerator door, telling his kids to never approach the house. “Spotlight” makes it all too clear what was at stake. That real people were damaged by a conspiracy of silence that went on for decades.

“Spotlight” is truly an ensemble film. The film draws upon an excellent collection of actors. Mark Ruffalo, nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite being a lead, starts off as a really chill guy. He runs to work and approaches most everything with a laid-back perspective. As the characters explore the case more, he grows increasingly more disturbed by what’s happening. A stand-out moment of acting involves Ruffalo loosing his cool, yelling at his editor in rage. Rachel McAdams mostly acts with her face, reacting silently if shocked to the confessions around her. Brian d’Arcy James is probably my favorite of the main cast, the one who reacts most violently to what’s happening. Michael Keaton, as the head editor, has the hard decision of delaying the publication of the story several times, always after a bigger reveal. Stanly Tucci is also great as the put-upon lawyer, handling the abuse cases as they arrive.

“Spotlight” has been described as a mystery, wrapping its socially conscious story in a recognizable genre package. The film does, indeed, feature its characters hunting down clues and leads. An especially effective moment involves the reporters uncovering church records, digging through each book for priests on “sick leave” or some other code word. Many scenes are devoted to characters discussing important documents, either available for the public or suppressed by the church. However, to frame “Spotlight’ as a mystery undermines what the story is doing. There’s no clean answers, no single suspect to pin the crime on. Instead, “Spotlight” ends with a list of hundreds of real locations where abuse was reported. The damage has been done and all we can do now is tell the truth.

A sparse, piano-driven score by Howard Shore and overly clean but often lyrical direction from Tom McCarthy further seals “Spotlight.” The film isn’t without some hiccups. Liev Schreiber is underutilized as the milquetoast new editor. The film incorporates the September 11th attacks somewhat awkwardly. Still, “Spotlight” features some powerful writing and some very strong performances, an expertly executed drama about an all too raw issue. [8/10]

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