Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James star as the Boston Globe reporters who investigated the Catholic priest molestation scandal during the early days of the 21st century. The story of how the writers of the ‘Spotlight’ section revealed a giant cover-up that horrified the city and the world has become a well crafted, respectable but reserved motion picture.
The look and feel of “Spotlight” is awfully reminiscent of an Alan J. Pakula film, a fitting choice. Yet, while Pakula’s quiet, dialog-driven “All The President’s Men” and other works created mounting excitement through the discoveries of the protagonists and made their living spaces feel lived in, “Spotlight” is rather dull.
Director Tom McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and especially “Win-Win” were all far more engaging. Side plots involving a reporter discovering his neighbor is a sex offender and the accusation that the news room chief (played by Liev Schrieber) has a hidden agenda build interest. Yet, its serviceable and distant.
Keaton and Ruffalo star in two of my favorite films about newspaper journalism, Ron Howard’s “The Paper” and David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” Both actors seem very comfortable and at home in the milieu of a newsroom. The well chosen cast turns in solid work but no one really dominates the screen or stands out. After Keaton’s stunning turn in “Birdman,” he feels as held back here as the film itself. While Keaton is very good here and doesn’t need to be over the top or flamboyant to turn in a great performance, he’s capable of so much more. Ruffalo has the strongest moment, expressing outrage at both the pace of the reporting and the story itself. McAdams has some good scenes as well and James is a real find. Yet, for a film containing one of the most stellar ensembles around, no one in the cast grabs the reigns and takes hold. Perhaps it’s the generosity of the actors to keep their acting dialed down and not attempt to outshine one another, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.
The film creates outrage and disgust in the viewer, though how hard is that to do when the subject matter is pedophile Catholic priests? The closing scroll is shocking but the sense of righteous anger conveyed feels as muted as the film itself. McCarthy’s focus on the investigation limits his scope and keeps the indignation present but seemingly bottled. It’s worth noting that, when we meet the victims, they’re so much more colorful, interesting and layered as characters than anyone on the ‘Spotlight’ news team.
Twenty years ago, the very-Hollywood but far more intense, bruising and compelling “Sleepers” is a preferable take on the subject matter. Rather than being a drama of reporters running after sources, that film focused solely on the victims, the lifetime of damage brought on by their abuse and how they sought a belated method of revenge. The film was accused of being far-fetched in 1996 (and it is) but the captivating turns by the all-star ensemble cast, and the way the story balances entertainment value and painful material, makes it a stronger film than “Spotlight.”