starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci
screenplay by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
directed by Tom McCarthy
by Walter Chaw Michael Keaton's a handsome guy. Not movie-star handsome in the traditional sense but, you know, not a dog. Everyday-guy handsome. Like Gene Hackman or Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino. I think fans responded the way they did when Keaton was cast in Tim Burton's Batman (i.e., violently) because Keaton doesn't look like a superhero. He has an attractively average physique. His chin is soft and that's the bit you see under the mask. But then he puts on the suit and plays the role and you understand that Keaton is who he is for the chaos of his energy. Burton used him as muse before turning to Johnny Depp, I think, because of the mania of his persona. There is no other actor the equal of Beetlejuice. He replaced Pee-Wee Herman in Burton's progression through men-children. He's doomed to eternally be smarter than the characters he plays, and more interesting. He's the boy version of Illeana Douglas. Keaton in motion is a thing of wonder and danger. He's a perfect Batman because Batman's story arc inevitably leads to the place where he's seen as the Superego to Joker's Id--as the opposite side of the same Arkham coin. Keaton is Grant Morrison's Batman. He is the average-looking Warren Beatty. If he were making movies in the '70s, he would be Robert De Niro. There aren't a lot of movie stars I like better than Michael Keaton. He is the embodiment of aspiration and stick-to-it-iveness.
Keaton was cast as a newspaperman before in Ron Howard's The Paper. He's a good fit for the image of the energetic, smart, chaotic, eminently-ethical Capra-journalist archetype. You root for him; you trust him. That's important in Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, which details the Catholic Church abuse scandal as unravelled by the BOSTON GLOBE's investigative "Spotlight" team in the early 2000s. Keaton is Walter "Robby" Robinson, the editor of the Spotlight Team, which is, Wikipedia tells me, the "oldest continuously operating investigative unit in the United States." They operate independently of the main paper's editorial oversight, hand-picking their members and hand-choosing their stories, which they then proceed to dissect and worry over for sometimes years. In movie-terms, they are like Brian De Palma's Untouchables in ink-stained wretch form. Robby's team is composed of the sharpshooter, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo); the grounded mucker, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); and the serious dad, Matt Carroll (Broadway star Brian d'Arcy James). One day, their new editor--a Jew, he's reminded often in a Catholic-dominated culture--Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) asks the Spotlight team why they've never really investigated all the separate instances of priests abusing children reported in the paper.
The GLOBE's deputy editor is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), the son of Ben Bradlee, who was played by Jason Robards in All the President's Men and was Executive Editor of the WASHINGTON POST when two of its reporters broke the Watergate scandal. That's germane in the sense that scandal seems constantly to be breaking or on the verge of breaking (consider the cheating scandal that's about to erupt around football's New England Patriots, "broken" by ESPN); but also in the sense that Spotlight tells its story exactly the same way that All the President's Men told its story, often using the same devices and visual cues. This is either because these things happen the same way every time they happen, or because there are only so many ways to shoot talking on a phone and taking notes, or because Spotlight recognizes a good template when it sees one. The problem with taking this tactic is that comparisons are inevitable and McCarthy is no Alan J. Pakula and the Spotlight team is not as cinematically vibrant as Woodward & Bernstein. In All the President's Men, you understand the ethics of Woodward when he allows Bernstein to continue to edit his piece without his permission. In Spotlight, you understand Robby's ethics when at the end he admits that he missed the story years ago, only to have Marty forgive him with a wide benediction. The benefit of this tactic is that the template is, indeed, sound, and whatever the film lacks in innovation, it replaces with great performances, a good screenplay, and a comfortable linearity.
Spotlight is easy to like. It takes the right stand against organized religion and the pain of betrayal. It paints a good picture of the caste divisions that push people to the Church and keeps them silent when the Church touches their children. Stanley Tucci does his best work in years as Armenian prosecutor Mitchell Garabedian, tasked with representing dozens of victims trying to attack a Catholic conspiracy that was eventually traced to the highest levels of the hierarchy. Ruffalo is just astounding. The fear I have for him is that he's so good he'll never be properly recognized for how good he is. There's a scene where he tells Garabedian that he's from South Boston and Garabedian expresses surprise, and Rezendes says...nothing. Watch it closely. It's a moment that doesn't land if you're not an exceedingly gifted performer. But the rest of the cast is good, too, as they go through Spotlight's paces: the shocking discoveries; the leads leading to new leads; the Imitation Game running to lend a story about dialling numbers and moving fingers across a keyboard some sense of motion. There's not a false note, nor is there a moment of righteous indignation left unheralded by creased brows and eloquent remonstrations. Note that the climax of the film is when one of the characters gravely circles two rows of names on a piece of paper. It works. If at the end the picture only highlights what a true marvel was All the President's Men, it at least doesn't dishonour its inspiration. If anything, Spotlight suggests that it knew better than to get in the way of its story, and, you know, I'll take it.