'Spotlight': Venice Review

An explosive topic gets a prosaic treatment.

Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams play Boston Globe reporters trying to expose a cover-up of sexually abusive priests in Tom McCarthy's fact-based drama.

A would-be All the Cardinal's Men, the less-than-resonantly titled Spotlight makes a dry affair of the sensational story of a small circle of Boston Globe journalists who, more than a decade ago, exposed the Roman Catholic church's institutional protection of sexually abusive priests. As numerous notable films have demonstrated, the spectacle of lowly scribes bringing down the great and powerful can make for exciting, agitating cinema, but director and co-writer Tom McCarthy's fifth feature is populated with one-dimensional characters enacting a connect-the-dots screenplay quite devoid of life's, or melodrama's, juices, which are what distantly motivate this story in the first place. Virtuous only by nature of its subject matter, this Open Road release, set to open in November, might have been more at home on the small screen.

It was a very big deal indeed when the church was finally called to account for its history of looking the other way or quietly shuffling misbehaving clergy off to obscure parishes when caught with their robes up or pants down. It was virtually unthinkable to the city's 50 percent Catholic population that the trail would lead all the way to the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, who resigned in 2002 when faced with numerous irrefutable first-hand testimonies.

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To tell the story, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (the dreary The Fifth Estate) focus on the small investigative "Spotlight" team of Globe reporters, who routinely worked on stories for months and wouldn't give up on this one until their chain of evidence was complete and unbreakable. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't make them interesting and distinctive people, and the uniformly excellent actors playing them can't bring them to life all by themselves. The truly dramatic story here lies offscreen and to a great degree in the past, while the journalists' work consists mostly of persistence, constant grinding and not having a life until the job is done. (And maybe not even then.)

The summer of 2001 was a tough time for the Globe, which had been bought by The New York Times and, like most newspapers, faced an uncertain future. Most uncertain of all are the intentions of the brand-new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), just arrived from Florida, a man with no knowledge of Boston and a clear mandate to shake things up.

Reporting to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) are Spotlight writers Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), who are set in their ways, although not necessarily in a bad way. They're all smart and have delivered the goods in the past. But they've never sunk their teeth into the subject Marty thinks could be worth pursuing, that of the victims of priestly abuse and the way the perpetrators have managed to go unpunished.

In fact, the Globe has been down this road before, but without much to show for it. Presently there are roadblocks stemming from sealed documents, the statute of limitations, and a general reluctance by many victims to go public with such private and shame-producing experiences. But times are changing and Marty, keen to make the Globe "essential to its readers" again, sets the Spotlight gang loose on the story.

While investigative journalism films may not comprise a full-fledged genre, there are still certain kinds of scenes in such stories that pop up so often that they do seem both formulaic and inevitable. Among them: Potential witnesses yelling at reporters and slamming doors in their faces, sought-after sources acting coy and slipping tiny hints designed to lead journalists on and drive them mad at the same time, big-shots inviting lowly scribes into rarified private clubs and bastions of power to try to get them to play ball, an editor seeing his shot at glory by pissing off the powers-that-be, reporters forsaking their health and private lives to get the story, and so on. These and more are all here, which underlines the problem of fundamental familiarity with a narrative like this: You keep charging ahead, against the odds, until you get the goods.

That's the way it goes here, but without strong characters or startling incidents that might have raised the film's pulse rate. Stanley Tucci cranks things up considerably as a psychotherapist who at first toys with the journalists before unloading gobs of sources and information, including such interesting claims as 50 percent of the Catholic clergy are not actually celibate. Neal Huff scores with the juicy part of a young man who tells all about his childhood of abuse at the hands of priests.

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But the capable main actors don't have much to do except chase leads around town and interview those willing to talk; there's no depth given to these reporters. An opportunity is also missed with Schreiber's interloper character, who greenlights the investigation. It's stated that he's Jewish, but there are no reverberations stemming from this, either in the way he might have been regarded as a suspicious outsider by the Catholic establishment or in his own mind about how he thinks he's being perceived. He's a very clammed-up character as presented.

In the end, this material can't help but be interesting, even compelling up to a point, but its prosaic presentation suggests that the story's full potential, encompassing deep, disturbing and enduring pain on all sides of the issue, has only begun to be touched.

Gordon Willis managed to do some great things photographically with the newsroom setting in All the President's Men, but this film is exceedingly plain visually, while Howard Shore's low-key score becomes monotonous.

Production: Anonymous Content, Participant Media, Rocklin/Faust
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriters: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Producers: Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Blye Pagon Faust
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Pierre Omidyar, Michael Bederman, Bard Dorros, Tom Ortenberg, Peter Lawson
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designer: Stephen H. Carter
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Tom McArdle
Music: Howard Shore
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee

Rated R, 128 minutes