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‘Spotlight’ shines bright on church scandal

By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer

"Spotlight," the story of the eponymous Boston Globe investigative team and their 2001 uncovering of the Catholic Church's infamous sexual abuse scandal, is a brilliant film that tackles a sensitive topic with the empathy, sincerity and humanity it deserves.

"Spotlight" follows the Spotlight team - consisting of Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). They are originally assigned to follow up on sexual abuse allegations toward a priest in the Boston area, at the behest of new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber).

At first, this seems like a purely anecdotal discovery, but, before long, Spotlight begins to discover more cases of molestation by priests. The team wants to publish their limited findings immediately, but Marty insists they wait - they have to aim for the system, not the man, he says, lest their investigation get swept under the rug.

Slowly but gradually, Spotlight discovers evidence that not only implicates the church, but also various others in conspiracy of these acts. While priests physically, mentally and spiritually scar these innocent children, there are also lawyers who protect the priests for their own profit and churches that lie about the incidents and 'rehabilitation.'

The scope of corruption is without comparison - there is an entire archdiocese of crime and deception that the Spotlight team aims to unveil.

Director Tom McCarthy manages to elicit a multitude of intense performances, most notably that of Mark Ruffalo, who depicts Rezendes as both a comfortably anxious and unbeatably passionate man in restless search of justice.

Michael Keaton continues his modern renaissance by creating an understated, but nonetheless impactful, performance as Robby. Both Brian d'Arcy James and Rachel McAdams add strong acts to their respective résumés, as well. The surprise among the bunch, however, is Liev Schreiber of "Ray Donovan" fame, who plays entirely off-type as the quiet, reticent Marty Baron.

What ultimately makes "Spotlight" a captivating powerhouse is the wide array of convincing minor characters - be they litigators, cardinals or victims - that sit across from the "Spotlight" team. As a whole, they create a cinematic Bostonian experience unlike that of recent film, trading hyper-violence and overdone accents for a feeling of widespread community and emotion.

Set on the precipice of the infinite Internet archives and periodicals we now take for granted, "Spotlight" also offers itself as a grittily romantic swan-song to the toils of archivists and print journalists. The Spotlight team spends countless hours searching, hand checking and cross-examining the documents and texts that litter the frame.

The filmmaking in "Spotlight" is deceivingly simple, with director Tom McCarthy relying heavily on conventional shot-reverse-shots and walk-and-talk tracking shots to facilitate the dialogue and advance the film's smart, engaging script.

This lack of visual stress doesn't hinder "Spotlight" at all, instead becoming one of its strongest attributes. Not only does the lack of an all-revealing, stylistic camera allow us to focus on the vital details that move the narrative along, it also forces us to imagine the disgusting implications of the plot.

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Images of a seemingly regular man salting the sidewalk outside his home or of children nonchalantly playing in a waiting room transform entirely after we discover their disturbing pedophilic contexts.

The protagonists of "Spotlight" are similarly refused solace from these inescapable what-ifs. Each character is poised with traits that force the investigation to the front of their minds - Pfeiffer attends church with her grandmother, Marty has kids, etc. - and this constant preoccupation has a very subtle, but noticeable effect on their lives away from the office.

"Spotlight" ends with neither a whimper nor a bang, but rather a harrowing moment of absolute silence, as slides filled entirely with locations that discovered similar sexual abuse scandals fade in and out of the screen. This is the single most powerful moment of "Spotlight," thematically compressing the stylistic and empathetic core of the film into a speechless sequence that speaks volumes.

"Spotlight" is among the year's best films, a visceral and intelligent experience that will undoubtedly be one of the most nominated come the Academy Awards in February.

4 out of 4 stars