Spotlight – Review (****)

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Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) mounts an impressive comeback following his colossal stumble with last year’s Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler, an ensemble-driven drama about a delicate subject that’s handled with grace and sensitivity, even if McCarthy’s work behind the camera is probably the package’s weakest link.

In early 2001, The Boston Globe’s special investigative unit known as Spotlight gets wind of a sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, as well as a systematic series of cover-ups. Led by steely journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team seeks to dig deep into the truth, find out how far the abuse and corruption goes, and publish when the time is right.

A top-drawer journalistic drama that’s earned apt comparisons to All the President’s Men, Spotlight broaches an unpleasant if fascinating subject with a refreshing matter-of-factness, neither lingering sensationally on the accounts of abuse nor shying away from them. The real treat here is simply in observing reporters at the top of their game doing great work, and revealing one shocking revelation after another to the audience.

Now, in fairness, these reveals won’t be that jaw-dropping to many, simply because it’s not exactly a secret these days, and documentaries like Deliver Us from Evil and Mea Maxima Culpa have done a far better, more comprehensive job of detailing the abuse than this film does. That said, Spotlight is braced exceedingly well between expose and fly-on-the-wall drama, providing an engrossing account of the brand of gritty, patient journalism that’s becoming increasingly less relevant with each passing day.

If the film has any one major weakness, it’s McCarthy’s direction (which, inexplicably, is being touted for Oscar consideration at present). It’s probably best described as “workmanlike”, for though flashy crane shots would almost certainly feel inappropriate here, the shot selections are nevertheless rather uninspired, and it often gives the film the feel of an extremely good Law and Order: SVU episode. It hardly sinks things, though this, combined with Howard Shore’s similarly pat score, does knock a few points off the total.

Still, in its bones this is a thoroughly gripping, superbly acted film, serving up one of the most committed ensembles of the year, with Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber rising to the top. It’s a solid if fairly unadventurous Best Picture winner if the Academy opts for it (which it currently seems like they will) following on from Birdman, but on its own merits, Spotlight is a film that will hopefully further crowbar open the public discourse about how the Catholic Church deals with abusive clergy.

****

Spotlight is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas January 29th

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