How in the world is anybody supposed to make a successful movie about the journalists who brought the sexual abuse coverups in the Catholic church to global headlines?

Let’s ask Peter Jackson. “Orcs,” he says. “All you need to do is create a new subplot in which there are some Catholic orcs who will set traps for the journalists, ambush them from the shadows, and maybe even kidnap the one woman reporter and drag her off into captivity.”

Okay, that’s a terrible idea. But I’m rather surprised that Spotlight never throws a gun into the works, nor a workplace romance, nor anything from the typical Hollywood Thriller Kit. Instead, Open Road Films hopes to get our attention with an ensemble cast that includes the Hulk, Batman, and that guy who emcees The Hunger Games. Hey, that works for me: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci are a starting line-up that makes me want a court-side seat.

But all you really need to do to get me in line for Spotlight is to mention Tom McCarthy. Although the writer and director of The Cobbler took a beating from audiences and critics alike this year for what has been called the worst Adam Sandler movie ever made, I have a feeling that there are untold stories about what went wrong with that film, because McCarthy is also credited with co-writing Up for Pixar, with writing and directing The Visitor (a big-hearted crowdpleaser about immigrants in New York) and The Station Agent, which happens to be the DVD in my collection that I loan out the most frequently because I love it so much. Those three achievements have planted him on my Must See list for anything he directs.

So I was thrilled to hear that McCarthy was taking on the story of The Boston Globe‘s special investigative unit and how they exposed a pattern of sexual abuse committed and covered up by many Boston-area priests and church officials.

And the movie does not disappoint: Spotlight is as rigorous and responsible in its depiction of these courageous investigations as the reporters apparently were in their reporting. As true stories go, this is engaging and inspiring stuff. McCarthy’s screenplay keeps things moving at a furious pace, so that it feels like an action movie with a time bomb ticking in the background. He recreates the late ’90s and early 2000s with with meticulous attention to detail, but without getting showy about it. And he refuses to oversimplify a complicated situation.

spotlight_ver2And yet, while I came away satisfied and impressed by the film’s depiction of true events, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it as a work of art. Is Spotlight more than than the sum of its parts? Is it outstanding cinema? I’m not so sure.

I don’t come away thinking about any images in particular — well, okay one: The billboard hovering ominously over The Boston Globe‘s headquarters. And the relentless talking-while-walking Sorkin-ness of it was a bit much at times. Granted, journalism is a difficult thing to portray onscreen without losing the audience’s attention. But I would have liked to see some more imagination at work. (When the inevitable Research Montage comes — a long overdue break from the incessant dialogue — it’s disappointing in just how rote it seems, with images of journalists hunched over books, pounding on the doors of public records offices as they close, or pushing hard to do research late into the night as library staff announce “Library’s closing!”)

I kept thinking about how it would feel to watch this and Michael Mann’s The Insider back to back — The Insider manages to be wonderfully sensuous, meditative, and gorgeous to look at, and it manages to bring home the emotional truth of its’ characters’ hard work and heroism more powerfully than this film does. Ah, but then again, The Insider is also full of death threats and shadowy stalkers, so perhaps I should give McCarthy some credit for showing a journalist’s discipline.

Really, I wouldn’t have minded if Spotlight had slowed down and been 20 minutes longer for the power it might have gained in making room for contemplation of the difference between the church’s ideals and its failures. Much of the reason we recoil from such betrayals is because we know, on some level, that the role of “priest” means something, and that it is being corrupted. Such events don’t discredit the idea of the church, just as bad cops don’t persuade us that there should be no law enforcement — in fact, they reinforce the essentiality and necessity of them by highlighting how badly human beings have fallen short in embracing, understanding, and embodying them.

And while I suspect to see some acting nominations as awards season begins, I suspect I’ll disagree with who really deserves the highest praise here. I couldn’t help but wonder what McCarthy himself would have been like in one of the two lead roles. He’s played a reporter before, and brilliantly (The Wire). Keaton and Ruffalo — two actors I’m always eager to see — are both good here, but they’re turned up a half-notch too high on the twitchiness meter for me; they kept me aware of their Acting instead of their characters. I could feel the movie worrying about how to make the material dramatic enough. Michael Keaton bares his teeth as if his inner Beetlejuice wants to bust out, and Ruffalo’s big Oscar-clip outbursts are begging for Hulk jokes

By contrast, Stanley Tucci turns in a surprisingly understated performance. (No, I can’t believe it either: I’m praising “Hammy” Tucci for subtlety!) Rachel McAdams, the big screen’s most stalwart performer of journalist roles, refuses to take her ensemble players as competition, giving her character an admirable, low-key resilience and compassion. Brian d’Arcy James, who is new to this moviegoer, shows no desire to stand out, and that’s why he’s great — I completely believe in his character. And this movie makes the best use of Billy Crudup I’ve seen since Almost Famous, suggesting that he may have the stuff to play some memorable villains in the future.

spotlight_xlg2But the MVP here is Liev Schreiber, who reminds me very much of Sidney Pollack in his performance as Boston Globe editor Marty Baron. He brings such gravitas and authority to the character that the film just feels more substantial whenever he’s onscreen.

I think we can all forget about The Cobbler now. McCarthy is still the remarkable director we’ve known him to be. I’d give Spotlight four stars for the ambition, ensemble cohesion, and screenplay consolidation of what must have been mountains of potential material. It moves so far so fast, and does so with a laser focus on abuses of power, without ever going the crowd-pleasing route of bashing Christianity itself.

But The Station Agent, for its depth of character development, its effortlessly incidental nature, its patient silences, its subtle metaphors, its capacity for comedy in the midst of trouble, is still — by far — my favorite of McCarthy’s films.

Here are some Spotlight reviews that I found well worth my time…

Steven Greydanus, at The National Catholic Register, makes it clear that Spotlight is not an attack on Catholicism, but on corruption within the church. Still, he does point out some weaknesses in the film’s account:

Characters perpetuate the common misuse of “pedophilia” in connection with abuse involving minors of any age. According to the 2004 John Jay Report, less than 5% of clerical offenders from 1950 to 2002 were pedophiles (who target prepubescent children rather than adolescents or teenagers). Sipe’s 6% figure — based on his clinical experience, not controlled studies — is apparently validated in Boston, though nationwide, from 1950 to 2002, about 4% of clergy were accused of abuse, with four in five of these accusations substantiated.

Spotlight never mentions that rates of abuse among Catholic priests have not been found to be higher than among other clergy, in other fields such as public education, or among the general population — or that rates of clerical abuse peaked in the 1970s, with sharp declines since then. Characters reinforce the common but unconvincing platitude that sexual orientation has nothing to do with the fact that the vast majority of victims (more than 80%) are male. And while end titles conclude with a long list of locations where scandals have occurred, there is no mention of the extensive measures the Church has undertaken in the last decade and a half to protect minors.

It would be easy for Catholics to seize on these and other issues and defensively dismiss the film as a hatchet job, but this would not be accurate or helpful. The film reflects the perspective of the Spotlight team; it offers a fundamentally negative view of Church leadership, one that is narrowly and one-sidedly grim but undeniably based in fact.

Peter Knegt at Indiewire see strong Oscar chances here:

If it is indeed true that we’ve already seen the film that will win the best picture (which has been the case by early November for the past 11 years), all signs point to that film being Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight.” Depicting The Boston Globe’s journalistic efforts to expose sex abuse within the Catholic church, it offers inspiring, intelligent filmmaking that will surely give McCarthy his first best picture nomination — and so far has quietly found itself in the default frontrunner position.

Ken Morefield published an early review from the Toronto International Film Festival at Christianity Today :

It almost exclusively focuses on the professional lives of the Spotlight team, rather than their personal lives. As in Law & Order, we get dribbles of personal information, but only as they come out at work. … This silence on the characters’ personal lives robs the film of some of its emotional impact. But gradually, as the story inches forward, something amazing happens. The actors start showing the toll that moving into the light is taking on them—through pained grimaces and hunched shoulders, through knowing glances and stunned silences. Instead of giving the characters (and us) the release of voicing their indignation too often, McCarthy lets the immensity of what is being revealed dawn on them slowly and wear on them steadily.

Joe Morgenstern at The Wall Street Journal writes:

“Spotlight” will inevitably be compared with the 1976 Hollywood landmark “All the President’s Men,” so let’s get the comparisons out of the way in order to appreciate this film on its own terms. “All the President’s Men” brought the star power of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman to bear on a story of surpassing political drama, the Washington Post’s investigations that led to the resignation of president Richard Nixon. Instead of stars, the independently produced “Spotlight” derives power from perfectly calibrated performances and authoritative writing that create a rock-solid sense of authenticity in a story of secret horror masked by decades of deception, complicity and neglect—sometimes in unexpected places.

Anthony Lane at The New Yorker says:

…the movie is uninfected by the noirish unease that drifted through “All the President’s Men.” Even the unseen caller who phones the Spotlight office, or the guy who arrives with a box of hoarded evidence, half-resigned to being dismissed as a crank, turns out to be right, and, as for the knock on the door that Rezendes hears one night, in the throes of the investigation, don’t expect a hooded figure standing on the threshold with a scythe. It’s only Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), the deputy managing editor of the Globe, bearing a pizza.