Past the Popcorn: Issues Films like Spotlight Are Worth Seeing, Too

by Jeff Walls

This modern era of cinema is dominated by special effects-laden stories of fictional superheroes saving the world from destruction, but what about the real heroes in this world?  They may not have superpowers or wear colorful costumes, but they are heroes because they do their jobs and they do what is right.  Fortunately, the movies still find time to tell these stories, and because they are about real people and real events they are often even more fascinating than those big-budget action spectacles.  Earlier this year, movie audiences were introduced to James Donovan, the lawyer who successfully negotiated the release of several American prisoners in Bridge of Spies, and now Spotlight tells the story of the brave Boston Globe reporters who broke the story about Catholic priests molesting young children wide open.

spotlight-insetThe title of the movie refers to the team of journalists at the Boston Globe which focuses its efforts on the bigger stories, the ones that often require months, if not years, of research and investigation.  The team of four works out of the Globe’s basement, digging for that next big story.  Enter the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron.  Baron is an outsider to Boston and immediately takes an interest in the story of a local catholic priest accused of molesting over eighty children.  He asks the team to look into it and they soon uncover that it appears that more than one priest has been accused of molesting children; there may actually have been five, or thirteen, or even as many as ninety in the Boston area alone.

They encounter plenty of resistance while trying to complete their investigation.  The church refuses to cooperate and has sealed away all of the incriminating documents, the lawyers who settled the previous cases hide behind their confidentiality agreements, and many of the few remaining survivors are hesitant to talk about a part of their life that they have being trying for years to move beyond.  Their diligence eventually prevails, however, and the scandal is exposed to the world.

Movies as a medium can both be entertaining and tackle important subjects, but the best movies are often both.  Spotlight is a clear example of this.  The movie tackles its challenging subject matter, giving it all of the respect and weight that the scandal’s victims deserve, but it does not push it so far that it becomes melodramatic.  The movie does this all while still managing to be a fast-paced and rousing ride for the cinema audience.

As journalistic thrillers go, the movie does not break much new ground.  In fact, the movie’s style and pacing are very much in the same vein as 1976’s All the President’s Men, often considered to be the greatest of all journalistic thrillers.  In fact, there is a connection between the two movies.  In All the President’s Men, the editor of the Washington Post is Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards.  Bradlee’s son, Ben Bradlee, Jr., was an editor at the Boston Globe when this scandal broke and he is played in Spotlight by John Slattery.

Like All the President’s Men, the characters in Spotlight spend much of the movie talking on the phone, knocking on doors, and shuffling through stacks of paperwork.  All of this could be tedious for the audience, but director Tom McCarthy does an excellent job of keeping up the pace of the action.

It also helps that the acting is top-notch.  Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams lead the cast that also includes Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, and the aforementioned Slattery.  Keaton and Ruffalo’s performances as Walter “Robby” Robinson and Michael Rezendes, respectively, were each praised by their real-life counterparts.

Spotlight is a powerful and entertaining film that deserves some serious consideration come awards season.

Spotlight opens today at the Regal Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? It’s reportedly gonna happen! Until then, eat local before you go!

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