Watch this: Spotlight

After a week watching films at TIFF as directed, I am not ashamed to admit that I took some time on my last day to see a few films I wanted to see. That included The Danish Girl (skip it) and He Named Me Malala (catch it). I would’ve seen more had there been enough hours in the day, but alas I could only make so many work.

spotlightThe one film I was not going to miss was Spotlight, a film I had heard exactly nothing about until just after its first TIFF screening when the trade headlines read “Spotlight speeds to front of Best Picture race.” With buzz like that, who am I to ignore it?

A film written and directed by Tom McCarthy, an actor-turned-filmmaker whose credits include Win Win, The Visitor and The Station Agent, this time McCarthy takes on the true story of the investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe’s Spotlight section who uncovered that city’s – and subsequently the country’s – priest sexual abuse scandal.

The cast of this true ensemble piece includes Michael Keaton (in a phenomenal follow-up to his return to grace in Birdman), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup and John Slattery, all of whom will be campaigned for Supporting Actor consideration rather than unfairly elevate any one actor for lead recognition.

Though focused on a scary, sad issue that continues to plague the Catholic church today, the film unfurls the tragedy of the sex abuse scandal as the reporters discover it: first in scraps and pieces that are horrifying in their own right, if manageable; and then in a veritable waterfall of disturbing, undeniable evidence of a scope until then unknown in the public sphere. In doing so, it perfectly walks the line between squirm-inducing and infuriating, sparing the audience many of the unsettling details a victim-centered film might rely on, while giving all due scrutiny the scope and scale of the cover-up that kept these criminals hidden for decades.

I’ll refrain from a plot recap here, not because it isn’t riveting, but precisely the opposite. The best part of the film – after the performances, the score, the writing, that is – is going on this journey of discovery with the Spotlight team, learning with each new piece of information and interview just how dark the reality is. McCarthy’s script employs classic (think montages) and creative elements to keep an audience engaged in every step of the investigation, including an exceptional scene with the action happening via speakerphone (and the voice, I swear, of an uncredited Richard Jenkins on the other end), a rather un-cinematic way to drop a major plot point. But as the camera zooms ever-so-subtly out over the course of the scene to include the faces of our journalists as the ramifications of this latest information hits them right in the gut – and heart – one can’t help but have a similar honest reaction.

The film ends with an epilogue I also won’t reveal here; suffice it to say that if the movie itself is not a strong enough wake-up call, these last few moments will be. As they played out and just as the credits started, the full theater I sat in erupted into applause, a rare occurrence at a P&I (press and industry) screening filled with the seasoned, cynical types who come to festivals to work not fawn.

It’s much too early to say how the year’s major awards will play out, but that trade that initially tipped me off to the quality of Spotlight wasn’t wrong – it is easily one of the best films of the year. And may just prove to be the best.

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