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Spotlight reviews: What did the critics say?

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A newspaper is traditionally black and white, but Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s new movie about the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the clergy sex scandal in their own backyard, is painted in all shades of gray. Beginning in 2001, the paper’s “Spotlight” investigative reporting unit stunned everyone, including themselves, when they uncovered decades of systematic enabling of sexual predators by the Boston Archdiocese. When the stories hit the newsstands and front porches in 2002, the Boston community was shocked into action, and Cardinal Bernard Law ultimately resigned from his post. In 2003, after their reporting led to similar scandals around the world, the Spotlight team was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Michael Keaton stars as Walter “Robbie” Robinson, the Spotlight team’s alpha. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James are his dedicated reporters who knocked on every door, asked the hard questions, and pored through stacks of research tomes to piece together the case that had been hiding in plain sight for at least a decade. Every cast is technically an ensemble, but McCarthy’s eclectic bunch is an all-timer, with Liev Schreiber and John Slattery playing Globe higher-ups, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci as local attorneys, and Len Cariou as Cardinal Law.

Co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), Spotlight is both a procedural and a nail-biting thriller, and the filmmakers treat the romance and limitations of journalism with equal weight. “Newsrooms have always been catnip to Hollywood,” write EW’s Chris Nashawaty, in his A review. “With their cold cups of coffee, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and bustling deadline chaos, they’re glamorously unglamorous settings where overworked, underpaid reporters get to speak truth to power. Often this leads to movies that choke on their own selfrighteousness (last month’s Truth). But once in a while there’s a film like Spotlight, which isn’t just the best movie about journalism since All the President’s Men, it might also be the most important.”

For more of Nashawaty’s review, and a collection of other critics’ takes from around the country, scroll below.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly) ▲

“Tautly directed by McCarthy (The Visitor), the film hums as a tense shoe-leather procedural and a heartbreaking morality play that handles personal stories respectfully without losing sight of the bigger, more damning picture. It would have been easy for McCarthy to paint the church as the film’s sole, monolithic villain. But there’s enough blame to go around to other institutions here, including the slow-to-act media. After all, Spotlight’s newsroom may have its heroes, but they’re not saints.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)

“One of the best movies about journalism ever made, at once gripping and accurate. It doesn’t get just the big things right, such as how news stories evolve, but also the small things, such as what offices look like and how staff tends to react to a new boss. McCarthy celebrates journalists and recognizes that what they do is important and necessary, but he doesn’t idealize them. He has the wisdom to recognize the negative side of the journalist personality, too, such as the reflexive skepticism that can easily slide into cynicism without a person even knowing it.”

Rene Rodriguez (Miami Herald) ▲

Spotlight doesn’t wallow in the glory of old-media ethics or lament the ongoing death of newspapers, although the movie quietly celebrates the rigorous standards of journalism that are increasingly dissipating in this era of click-baiting and Twitter outrage. This is simply a great story exceedingly well told, through characters whose fingers are perpetually stained with ink.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times)

“It’s not easy to make an emotionally involving film in which some of the most pivotal moments are about phone calls and making copies of documents and a source circling names on a document — but save for a few overly dry moments, Spotlight prevails. It’s one of the smartest and most involving movies of the year.”

Ann Hornaday (Washington Post

“If Citizen Kane was a monumental narrative of operatic scope and visual ambition, and All the President’s Men a tautly paranoid thriller attuned to the dawning cynicism of its time, Spotlight has achieved something far more difficult, marshalling a pure, unadorned style in the service of a story that rejects mythologizing in favor of disciplined, level-eyed candor.”

David Edelstein (New York)

“McCarthy (who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer) creates a great space for actors to cut loose, and this one is one of the most sensational ensembles — top to bottom — in years. … Schreiber underacts marvelously as the essentially private Baron; Billy Crudup nearly stops the show as a super-smooth, super-friendly, 100 percent phony lawyer for victims the Church wants out of its hair fast; and Jamey Sheridan as the church’s lawyer knows how to show the demon under the human face — and the human under the demon face.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

“Heading the team, and viewing himself as a kind of player-coach, is Walter Robinson. As played with the perfect unobtrusive swagger by Keaton, Robinson is easygoing until he’s not, and the way the actor disappears into this unshowy role is as impressive, if not more so, than the pyrotechnics of his Birdman performance.”

Dana Stevens (Slate)

Spotlight the movie, like Spotlight the news team, has no single star player. It’s a democratic operation in which every participant matters, right down to the clerical workers who wheel carts of documents from one Globe department to another. But insofar as the film has an employee of the month, it’s Mark Ruffalo, whose constitutional decency has never served him better. His Mike Rezendes, a working-class Bostonian of Portuguese descent, isn’t always nice — he can be pushy, uncouth and impatient — but he’s always fundamentally good, so we trust his motives even at his most pugnacious.”

Justin Chang (Variety) ▲

“Slattery, Tucci and Schreiber all shine in small yet vital roles, while the cast also includes sharp work by Jamey Sheridan and Paul Guilfoyle as two Church-connected friends who try to talk Robinson down from his publish-or-parish stance. We recognize them immediately — and perhaps a bit of ourselves — as members of a great swath of decent yet compromised humanity, the proverbial good men who do nothing and allow evil to flourish.”

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)

“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.”

A.O. Scott (New York Times) ▲

“Mr. McCarthy is a solid craftsman. The actors are disciplined and serious, forgoing the table-pounding and speechifying that might more readily win them prizes from their peers. Everything in this movie works, which is only fitting, since its vision of heroism involves showing up in the morning and — whether inspired by bosses or in spite of them — doing the job.”

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 93

Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent

Rated: R

Length: 127 minutes

Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Distributor: Open Road