Spotlight, director/co-writer Thomas McCarthy's dramatic procedural exploring the events leading to the Boston Globe's 2002 exposé on sexual abuse within the Catholic church, isn't much to look at. Its color palette is generally restricted to sallow browns and grays, and even under the fluorescent illumination of the Globe offices, the air is heavy with an oppressive pall. A man racing down a courthouse hallway is the closest the film comes to an action sequence. One montage is devoted solely to journalists scanning address directories with rulers. And to my eyes, Spotlight - scene by scene, minute by minute - still emerges as the least boring movie of the year.
It's impossible to be bored, after all, when your brain is being actively engaged, and McCarthy's latest is spectacularly engaging; following its two hours of journalistic legwork and mostly hushed conversation, I left the film's auditorium far more alert than when I walked in. I'll admit I've got a major jones for entertainments of this ilk, and if stranded on a desert island, could likely survive contentedly with only All the President's Men and Zodiac for company. But try as I might, I can't think of a single thing wrong with Spotlight, a film in which the writing (by McCarthy and Josh Singer), directing, acting, and below-the-line craftsmanship are in such harmonious accord that what results is something truly contradictory: a thrilling, even exhilarating account of the mundane.
The title refers to the Globe section devoted to investigative journalism, and its team that, in Spotlight's 2001-2 time-frame, consists of four staffers: supervising editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). They answer to the Globe's deputy managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), who, in turn, answers to Managing Editor Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber) - who, as the movie opens, has just arrived in Boston from his previous post at the Miami Herald. During his introductory meeting with Globe editors, Baron references a recently published article about a local priest charged with sexually abusing children since 1976. Wondering whether there's more to uncover, and exactly how a priest gets away with such crimes for a quarter-century, Baron suggests filing a motion to have the case's sealed documents opened. Bradlee, incredulous, asks, "You want to sue the church?"
That's not the last time Baron or his staffers will hear that question. As Spotlight progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that in Boston, at least, the Catholic church is an untouchable - a monolith of extraordinary political reach and power that's not to be queried or trifled with. Yet Robinson and his team, in true bloodhound form, start sniffing and scratching anyway, and what begins with interviews with a couple of the charged priest's victims eventually leads to the discovery of dozens of other clergymen having committed hundreds of similar, unreported crimes. (During a phone interview with a psychiatrist - one voiced by McCarthy's The Visitor star Richard Jenkins - the reporters are told that as many as 6 percent of a city's priests have likely preyed on children, which the Globe's investigation proves correct: 87 priests in Boston alone.) Spotlight's story is, of course, a true one, and a deeply upsetting one, especially once the extent of the church's accountability is made apparent. Yet it's not a grim or unpleasant chore to sit through. Quite the opposite: In its detailed examination of the reporters' months of fact-finding, and its refusal to turn in any way exploitative, McCarthy's film is a fascinating, inspiring account of gifted and dogged professionals doing a job and demanding it be done right.
At no point, thankfully, are there flashback scenes in which the victims' horrific childhood experiences are visualized. (Given how simply yet wrenchingly actors Neal Huff, Jimmy LeBlanc, and Michael Cyril Creighton recall their characters' abuse, they're certainly not needed.) What we're given instead are exactingly written, beautifully paced scenes of reporters and their subjects sharing - or cagily not sharing - information, replete with shots of journalists performing the unglamorous duties of investigation circa 2001: knocking on doors, making phone calls, checking out library books, rifling through newspaper clippings. (Computers do exist in the Globe offices here, but from all evidence, as seems accurate for the period, they're used primarily as word processors.) Consequently, as befits his material, McCarthy's controlled direction and presentational style are determinedly anti-showy. Yet the experience of Spotlight isn't in any way static. There's such snap and electricity in the continual compounding of information that it feels right when the images remain still so the verbiage, and the intensity behind it, can wash over you. And the movie's signature visual motif, which finds us closely trailing our reporters as they walk and talk, feels right, too - McCarthy's camera nipping at their heels while they nip at those of others.
I'd discuss the film's standout performances, but there really aren't any, which I mean as a complete compliment. From Keaton to the one-scene cameos, Spotlight provides a veritable master class in the art of ensemble screen acting, the recruited talents' invested naturalism and easy give-and-take convincing you that everyone on-screen exists in the very same world. There's such a lack of emotive grandstanding that when Rezendes flies off the handle and delivers a fiery, pissed-off speech, it's countered by Robinson asking, "You finished?" - a gentle but firm reminder that the task at hand leaves no time for histrionics. McCarthy's movie doesn't have time for them, either. Everyone is exceptional, but no one is showcased above anyone else, and I don't think it's an accident that the cast boasts so many Tony-nominated and -winning stage actors - Ruffalo, d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou - who clearly understand when to take charge and when to gracefully melt into the background and cede the attention to others.
And Spotlight never lets you forget that it's always about the "others" - the victims of sexual abuse whose stories weren't told, and voices not listened to, through a combination of fear, intimidation, shame, political pressure, blatant cover-up, and even journalistic laziness. (The Globe itself is no innocent party, as it's revealed that evidence of sexual misconduct in the church was sent to the Boston paper years before the film's events and effectively buried; more than once, when meeting a new interview subject, reporters are angrily asked, "What took you so long?") At the end of this devastating, smart, incisive, and, yes, powerfully entertaining movie, there's the expected closing crawl of historical catch-up, but it doesn't inform us what happened to the characters or the Globe, or so much as mention the Pulitzer Prize awarded for the sex-abuse coverage. Instead, it lists the staggering number of victims who came forward as a result of the articles, and the cities of America (and the rest of the world) in which similar violations have been reported. To the end, the film remains focused on those who endured these crimes, and doesn't make gods or martyrs of those whose job it was to spotlight them. McCarthy's movie is, to my mind and to date, 2015's finest. It may also be its most humane.
SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Writer/director Billy Ray's Secret in Their Eyes, an Americanized remake of the 2009 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar winner El Secreto de Sus Ojos, is a tale of obsession, and watching it, I got a little obsessed myself - primarily with questions such as "Why does Chiwetel Ejiofor pine over Nicole Kidman for 14 years when her mutual affection is indistinguishable from blasé disregard?" And "Why does Julia Roberts, when she wails and sobs, give us no accompanying tears?" And "Why does Dean Norris look older in the flashback scenes, where he has hair, than he does in the present-day scenes, where he's bald?" It's fair to say that such queries weren't what I should've been transfixed with in this tale of a teen girl's 2001 rape and murder and the crime's re-opened investigation 14 years later. But while the story is a strong one, it doesn't appear to have been rendered here with any particular interest. Ray's dialogue is stilted and unconvincing, and the only respite from the movie's tedious, drab presentation comes via a couple of frantically edited foot chases and the repeated sight of Roberts' victimized daughter (Boyhood's Zoe Graham, her wide grin an ideal match for Roberts') being brutalized in the trunk of a car - hardly the respite anyone could have wanted.
Blessedly, Secret in Their Eyes isn't unremittingly dour. There's some early, spiky joshing among the detectives played by Ejiofor, Roberts, Norris, and Michael Kelly, plus a welcome bit of near-slapstick after Norris jumps over a fence and his partner Ejiofor, the unexpectedly less nimble of the two, asks Norris to kindly let him in through the gate. But the movie's wearying mood is echoed in Roberts' morose bearing and vacant gaze, the commentary on post-9/11 bureaucracy feels under-cooked, and while Ejiofor emotes his heart out, Kidman plays the object of his devotion so stiffly that nearly her entire performance seems as though it were given immediately after several injections of Botox. (Only in one sequence, during which her interrogator baits a suspect with ferocious meanness, does Kidman come off as a genuine actor and not a mannequin.) There appears to be a secret in everyone's eyes, all right, but unfortunately, that secret reads as "Don't tell anyone the Argentinian version is wa-a-a-ay better than this."
THE NIGHT BEFORE
No movie that opens with Tracy Morgan delivering profane exposition in holiday verse can be altogether disappointing, and director Jonathan Levine's slapstick The Night Before isn't - it's slapdash and awkward, for sure, but also terrifically genial and frequently very funny, like a lame Christmas party saved by really awesome guests. The nominal plot finds three best buds (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie) making their annual, and decidedly final, drug-and-booze-fueled trek through downtown Manhattan in search of the perfect Christmas Eve bash, and Levine's comedy is a strange blend of holiday sentiment and frat-boy gross-out; this is what you'd get if Love Actually and Superbad had a baby and spent 100 minutes getting it high.
But while the wildly differing genre moods don't successfully mesh, and even the more clever physical gags aren't terribly well-staged (as when Mackie gets "Home Alone-ed" by some tiny plastic toys and falls flat on his back), The Night Before retains a friendly charm, and the performers are ceaselessly winning. Gordon-Levitt makes up for his excruciating whimsicality in The Walk with a strong, centered turn here, and Mackie proves himself a confident, quick-witted funnyman. Michael Shannon is typically creepy and atypically hilarious as our heroes' longtime weed dealer. For a movie that's intensely Dude Bro, the women get a healthy amount to do and do it splendidly, with riotous work contributed by Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Ilana Glazer, and Lizzy Caplan, the latter treated far better here than she was in Rogen's The Interview. As for Rogen himself, you'd think there'd be no surprise left in the performer's stoner routine, and maybe there isn't - but augment that marijuana high with mushrooms, cocaine, and Molly, and hoo-boy does Rogen go to town. Most of his portrayal in The Night Before finds Rogen's character blitzed out of his gourd, and I cackled like mad when his bad trips found him conversing with Nativity-scene sheep, and freaking out (in his star-of-David holiday sweater) over his first midnight Mass, and reacting, not at all unhappily, to the copious and intimidating dick pics sent to him via iPhone. It's been a weapon in his comic arsenal for 16 years now, but Seth Rogen's drug-induced hysteria is still a gift that keeps on giving.