Spotlight ★★★★

[UPDATE: I've posted my full first-viewing review, plus a film forum, here: www.lookingcloser.org/2015/11/spotlight-2015-first-impressions-and-a-film-forum/ ]

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Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is as rigorous and responsible in its depiction of these courageous investigations as the reporters apparently were in their reporting. As true stories go, this is engaging and inspiring stuff.

But is it more than than the sum of its parts? I'm not so sure.

I don't come away thinking about any images in particular — well, okay one: The billboard hovering ominously over The Boston Globe's headquarters. And the relentless talking-while-walking Sorkin-ness of it was a bit much at times. (When the Research Montage comes — a long overdue break from the incessant dialogue — it's disappointing in just how rote it seems. "Library's closing!") I kept thinking about how it would feel to watch this and Michael Mann's The Insider back to back — The Insider manages to be wonderfully sensuous, meditative, and gorgeous to look at in a way that brings home the emotional truth of its narrative more powerfully than this film does.

Really, I wouldn't have minded if the film had slowed down and been 20 minutes longer for the power it might have gained in making room for contemplation of the difference between the church's ideals and its failures. Much of the reason we recoil from such betrayals is because we know, on some level, that the role of "priest" means something, and that it is being corrupted. Such events don't discredit the idea of the church, just as bad cops don't persuade us that there should be no law enforcement — in fact, they reinforce the essentiality and necessity of them by highlighting how badly human beings have fallen short in embracing, understanding, and embodying them.

Most disappointing of all was that Keaton and Ruffalo were both turned up a half-notch too high on the twitchiness meter, which kept me thinking about their acting instead of their characters. It's really hard to watch Michael Keaton's more anxious moments without seeing his inner Beetlejuice wanting to bust out — to say nothing of Ruffalo's Oscar-clip outbursts, which are begging for Hulk jokes. I couldn't help but wonder what McCarthy himself would have been like in one of these roles, since he's played a reporter before, and brilliantly (The Wire). By contrast, Stanley Tucci turns in a surprisingly understated performances. (No, I can't believe it either, but I am totally praising Hammy Tucci for an understated performance.)

The MVP here is Liev Schreiber, playing the role of Sidney Pollack, playing the role of editor Marty Baron.

I think we can all forget about The Cobbler now. McCarthy is still the remarkable director we've known him to be. But I gotta say... The Station Agent, for its depth of character development, its effortlessly incidental nature, its patient silences, its subtle metaphors, its capacity for comedy in the midst of trouble, is still — by far — my favorite of McCarthy's films.

But yeah, four stars for the ambition, ensemble cohesion, and screenplay consolidation of what must have been mountains of potential material. It moves so far so fast, and does so with a laser focus on abuses of power, without ever going the crowd-pleasing rout of bashing Christianity itself.

P.S.
How many investigative reporters has Rachel McAdams played now?

P.P.S.
What does a thoughtful Catholic make of this film? Read Steven Greydanus: www.ncregister.com/daily-news/sdg-reviews-spotlight