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Journalism takes center stage in Tom McCarthy’s fine exposé

Rating: R  –  Grade: A

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Every year the Toronto International Film Festival offers an exclusive look at many of the titles expected to factor into prestige season’s discussion of the best films of the year. This year was no different, but thematically, there was an added fascination with feature film investigations into the lives of notorious public figures or hot-button issues with global cultural significance.

“Black Mass” (Scott Cooper’s take on the story of infamous criminal-turned FBI informant Whitey Bulger), “The Program” (the Stephen Frears adaptation of David Walsh’s book on the Lance Armstrong doping scandal in cycling), and “Truth” (the recently released film from writer-director James Vanderbilt that detailed the 2004 “60 Minutes” investigation into President George W. Bush’s military service) sought to lead the charge on this front, but will now all ended up taking a backseat to Tom McCarthy’s searing look at the dogged journalistic pursuit undertaken by the cracker jack team at The Boston Globe, which exposed a widespread molestation scandal in the Boston Archdiocese that included a cover-up extending to cities all over the United States and ultimately to the Vatican.

What propels “Spotlight” past the other true-life dramas with legal and journalistic examination angles is its relentless focus on the actual nuts and bolts legwork, the interviews conducted by curiously enflamed reporters, the hours spent delving into old court records and hard copy archives (the narrative takes place just before the real emergence of the Internet as a resource), the off-the-record conversations with sources seeking to pass along information without exposing themselves.

This is war, an old school battle based on double and triple checking facts before going to print, not the frenzied distribution of hearsay and trolled comments on social media that gets gobbled up and spit out today when news cycles last minutes at best.

“Spotlight” is also a relic of sorts, in that it stands on the backs of one of the strongest ensembles assembled. In terms of the core team, it starts at the top with Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the man in charge of the “spotlight” section, an investigative group that can spend months working leads before ever putting a story in print. The focus is not “breaking news.” Instead, goal is to pen news stories that definitively break open the truth for readers. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) lives and breathes for the research and the interviews, where the kernels of information await. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) tries to squeeze in time with family, half-heartedly taking a stab at life in the light, surrounded by others, but she, like Rezendes, loves the job more than the time spent away from it. This close-knit trio benefits the presence of a new publisher in Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), a Jewish outsider willing to confront a religious institution and hierarchy that dominates the moral landscape. Rarely has an investigative unit been more perfectly suited for an assignment.

These journalistic avengers are not rampaging superheroes and superstars spouting branded sound bytes for the awards season reels. These are actors working, spy-like, in the trenches, anonymously, letting the story sparkle. “Spotlight” will surge through the awards season, claiming the top spot on its fair share of Top Ten lists, but it will likely do so without the distinction of added support in the major acting categories, because in most cases, there are no prizes for ensembles. There is no “I” in team, but we need to start spotlighting the reality that, more often than not, it requires coordinated effort to achieve massive aims. Now that’s the whole truth and nothing but. (tt stern-enzi)