September 16, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Spotlight”


Awards season is Darwinian, often placing two titles in direct competition that have only general traits in common.  Last year we had the British biographies The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, which might have canceled each other out in the end.  This year brings two excellent stories about journalism, Truth and now Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT (co-written with Josh Singer), both of them at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.

Spotlight has the basic similarity to Truth that both are about small task forces of reporters assigned to intensive investigation of recent scandals, but Spotlight is also Truth‘s mirror image, because while the latter is about the way the resulting story blew up in the reporters’ faces, Spotlight is about the journalism system working perfectly, with Pulitzer Prizes for everyone.  (As such, it might be more of an audience–and Academy–pleaser.)

The film’s title refers, among other things, to the name of the investigative journalism unit at the Boston Globe.  With a luxury of time that the script makes clear could become a thing of the past as newspapers reduce and die (and which the Truth team would have liked to have), they painstakingly took the story of a single Roman Catholic priest who molested children and built it into a saga of cover-ups decades long that reached as high as Boston’s Cardinal, and sent reverberations to the Vatican.

McCarthy, whose very fine films (until the recent and best-forgotten Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler) include The Station Agent and Win Win, takes his cue from the quiet professionalism of the reporters.  While Spotlight has the same respect for the shoe-leather, day to day work of reporting as All the President’s Men, it doesn’t have that film’s paranoid thriller overtones.  There are no sinister garage encounters with informants, or concerns about being under surveillance.  There aren’t even any major threats from the Church as they do their work (although there’s certainly no help either).  These reporters don’t make the mistakes that Woodward and Bernstein did, let alone the ones that toppled the team from Truth.  They’re experts at their jobs, and they link A to B to C until they have exactly the story they wanted.

The result is gripping and satisfying, although it lacks some of the excitement and moral complexity that these other journalism stories have had.  Similarly, Spotlight is a true example of ensemble casting, with Michael Keaton’s Walter Robinson only slightly more prominent than the reporters played by Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’Arcy James because his character outranks theirs.  Each of the actors is impeccable (that goes as well for John Slattery and Liev Schreiber as more senior editors, and Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle and Len Cariou as various oily representatives of the church), but none is asked to stand out.  The only actor who gets an old-time character role to chew on is Stanley Tucci, gifted with the ornery lawyer who represents some of the victims of the priests, and who has no patience for anyone in his way.

Spotlight is beautifully paced, both by its script and by Tom McArdle’s editing, and it has a low-key but utterly convincing production design by Stephen H. Carter, and fluid cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi.  It deserves to be in the awards conversations that are coming, and it will reach theatres in early November, 3 weeks after Truth, which may be to its tactical advantage or not.  (Truth has one clear advantage, being shepherded through the awards process by the experienced Sony Classics team that has many Oscars to their credit, while Spotlight‘s Open Road studio will be undergoing the experience after only having failed to get Jake Gyllenhaal a nomination for last year’s Nightcrawler.)  However many awards podiums its makers end up standing behind, it’s an altogether admirable piece of work.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."