In last year’s “Birdman,” Michael Keaton delivered on the rare challenge of a role that actually called for overstatement. That attribute is nowhere to be found in Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” in which Keaton heads up a robust ensemble cast as the morally conflicted leader of a Boston Globe reporting team. An intelligently paced portrait of the muckraking 2001 efforts that led to countless revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the tone of “Spotlight” echoes Keaton’s nuanced turn. Yet the overly earnest movie falls below the rich ambiguities that Keaton brings to the part, resulting in a measured drama so restrained it sometimes underserves the material. Where “Birdman” magnified Keaton’s talent, “Spotlight” leans on it.
However, the focused narrative signifies a welcome return to form for McCarthy after last year’s Adam Sandler misfire “The Cobbler,” and reaffirms this actor-director’s true strengths as an actor’s director, a trait evident ever since his gentle 2003 debut “The Station Agent.” Since then, McCarthy’s other two features, “The Visitor” and “Win Win,” furthered his focus on outsiders struggling against their flaws to become better people. That theme migrates to a heavier thematic stage with “Spotlight.”
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The movie takes place in the frenzied months between late 2001 and 2002, when the team from the Globe’s titular special reporting division uncovered hundreds of child molestation cases going back several decades from the Boston area. The process of uncovering those revelations hold plenty of intrigue, but “Spotlight” generates its strongest moments around inquiries surrounding the journalists’ decision not to jump on the story sooner. To that end, they’re typical McCarthyian protagonists, whose heroics are undercut by past mistakes.
But that process wouldn’t matter much if McCarthy didn’t foreground Keaton’s impressively muted performance.
As Walter “Robby” Robinson, the veteran reporter at the helm of the Globe’s clandestine Spotlight section, Keaton maintains his composure throughout — even as his focused gaze hints at a divided mindset below the surface. Like John Wayne’s racist cowboy in “The Searchers,” Robby is a well-intentioned representative of old world thinking attempting to find his place in a new terrain. In this case, that means tackling a story of corruption that stems from a world he instinctively protects.
Robby’s process of awakening to his beat starts when he’s challenged by his committed new editor Marty Baron (a stern Liev Schreiber) to chase more audacious stories. Robby initially regards Marty — not a Boston native — as a misguided newcomer. But when Marty presses the team to pick up on an earlier report about sexual abuse, the bread crumbs keep building up, ultimately trapping Robby between his allegiance to the hush-hush nature of his close-knit religious community and professional obligations to expose a systemic problem.
Shifting between Robby’s relationship to the story and his hardworking teams’ trenchant research, “Spotlight” zips along through one telling dialogue exchange after another, as the full extent of abuses come together with puzzle-like precision.
The narrative largely unfolds through backroom strategy sessions and briefings that edge the
explosive reporting along. In between a process of interviews with victims, cagey Bostonians and even one apparently senile priest, the Spotlight team’s biggest opposition is their own decision-making process. They debate a series of ambitious strategies, from suing the Catholic Church for access to sealed court documents to compelling a tight-lipped attorney (Stanley Tucci) to share details on former clients who were abused by various priests.
The bigger question lingers just on the cusp of these scenes: Why did it take so long? Ironically for a movie driven by talk, “Spotlight” focuses on a topic nobody wants to discuss.
That’s where Keaton’s face comes into play. In “Birdman,” his sunken eyes and the wizened features surrounding them symbolized the immovable aging process as it tortured a desperate man; in “Spotlight,” they point to his years of experience, and assumption of authority they entail. He’s a veteran with much to learn, a lapsed Catholic protecting his world and afraid to confront the truth until it emerges from his own efforts.
Still, Keaton’s hardly the whole show in this meaty cast. Though sometimes overwhelmed by a busy pile-up of circumstances, “Spotlight” never lacks a scene without talent. As fellow Spotlight reporter Michael Rezendes, Mark Ruffalo bounds back and forth from his office to City Hall, burrowing through records in search of earlier abuse charges filed away years earlier. With less of a backstory, Rezendes often comes across more as an agent of the Spotlight agenda than a full-fledged character, but Ruffalo imbues him with palpable intensity. Rachel McAdams delivers another absorbing turn as field reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, particularly in a series of fragmented encounters with touchy locals. Tucci and Schreiber are both convincingly guarded in their handful of scenes, while John Slattery — as Globe senior editor Ben Braldee Jr. — fits the role of focused overseer with little differentiation from his “Mad Men” performance.
As a whole, these actors contribute to an atmosphere of grave importance, even as the story only goes so far to justify their investment. While the easiest point of comparison might be “All the President’s Men,” McCarthy seems to be taking an even bigger page from Sidney Lumet’s moody urban police dramas, where every passing glance hints at a covert agenda.
“Spotlight” struggles when it attempts to verbalize the conflict. Once the reporters get closer to the scale of abuses hidden away over the years, they begin to verbalize their concerns in hyperbolic terms. Facing down the Tucci character’s insistence on obscuring his past cases, Rezendes accuses the lawyer of “turning child abuse into a cottage industry.”
That allegation might stand out in an essay, but like many moments in “Spotlight,” it’s a strikingly on-the-nose assertion in the context of conversation. For all the weight placed on the actors, the impassioned screenplay never quite matches up. Co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, it showcases the writerly tendency to overplay its themes. As much of the film avoids exaggeration, the explanatory nature of certain exchanges stands out. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” asserts one journalist, with the spirit of Aaron Sorkin inexplicably beneath his wings. That issue is compounded by McCarthy’s near-sacred reverence for his subjects, a tendency that’s especially frustrating near the end, when Schrieber delivers a didactic speech about journalistic ethics as Howard Shore’s music swells.
Nevertheless, the occasional distracting scene doesn’t obscure the most engaging aspects of the labyrinthine plot, particularly once it circles back to the reporters’ own former negligence. As McCarthy gradually introduces the Globe’s previous standards for reporting on its city’s secrets, the two-hour movie develops a canny depiction of a storied media institution coming to grips with its limitations. While months creep by, 9/11 comes and goes, an event that McCarthy uses to draw a keen distinction between the big picture of national stories and their tendency to dwarf the local beat. But when the Spotlight team wises up, they realize how much they can affect change on the scale available to them. Following that thread, “Spotlight” is littered with captivating exchanges.
Still, the movie’s chief appeal comes down to Keaton’s engrossing presence. It’s his layered expression — pitched between amazement and renewed understanding — that closes the film, epitomizing the extent of the revelations subsequently explained in the credits: Well over 1,000 survivors of sexual abuse came forward after the Globe’s initial front page story in early 2002. That figure once again point to the lack of attention given to the allegations in previous decades. As much as “Spotlight” salutes journalistic achievements, it works best when probing its shortcomings. There’s no finer barometer for studying this struggle than Keaton’s performance, which embodies the internal process of trying to do the right thing — and instead achieving the opposite effect.
“Spotlight” premiered this week in Venice. It opens in limited release on November 6.