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Movie Reviews: 'Spotlight', 'Suffragette' Wage War on Unjust Institutions

Oscar season heats up with two hard-nosed true stories.

Open Road Films | Focus Features

Watching Spotlight, it's easy to forget you're experiencing a movie. Co-written (with Josh Singer) and directed by Thomas McCarthy, the film flows as natural as real life while telling the positively riveting true story of the Boston Globe's investigation into the Archdiocese and Catholic Church in 2001-2002. It's an underdog story of righteous indignation, the swing, and follow through. You will not see a more satisfying film this year, or a better one.

Movie Reviews: 'Spotlight', 'Suffragette' Should Bid For Awards Love
Open Road Films

Excuse the baseball analogy, but a film rooted in Boston will always mention the Red Sox, and Spotlight does, as a few of the main characters worship at the altar of Fenway Park in an early scene. But the film focuses squarely on another Boston institution that makes even the Olde Towne Team pale in comparison. The Catholic Church, the center of the universe for millions of local businessmen, women, teachers, cops, and everyone else in the area, comes under fire for the most scandalous reason imaginable, and one well-known by now: child sexual abuse. 

At the Globe, new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Floridian, isn't swayed by the local reverence for the Catholic Church. He assigns the newspaper's investigative "Spotlight" team, led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), to look into charges of clergy sexual misconduct. Robinson and assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) squint at the task. More than half of the Globe's subscribers are Catholic and the Church seems an impossible adversary.

But Robinson goes to work with his team of savvy, experienced reporters. "We gotta ignore everyone on this one." He tells them. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) wrangles a very busy defense attorney (Stanley Tucci). Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) sets out interviewing witnesses and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) crunches the numbers. Soon the team discovers abuse isn't simply happening, it's happening en masse, and the shockwaves of this revelation ripple far and wide, urging the reporters on in the most meaningful fight of their lives.

Movie Reviews: 'Spotlight', 'Suffragette' Wage War on Unjust Institutions
Open Road

"The city flourishes when its great institutions work together." Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) tells Baron when they meet about the investigation. Law even gives Baron a copy of the Catechism as a gift. Spotlight is downright perfect in its development. Scenes like this vividly depict the investigators' uphill battle, adding a dangerous edge to the excavation while giving a sense of how revered the bad guy really is. And the Church is not depicted favorably. The film shows us how sex abuse allegations were covered up for decades thanks to the godly hierarchy. Accused priests were simply moved across town where they could repeat their behavior with impunity. Victims who did have the courage to step forward were denied any recompense, never mind justice. 

The depth of this film is staggering. Not only does Spotlight tell a beautifully-sketched procedural through old school reporting, it delves into the psychology and emotional impact of the case as well. One victim asks Rezendes "How do you say 'No' to God?" The acts of the guilty priests' aren't just physical abuse, but spiritual as well. These men used their powerful positions in the community to prey on the weak. The depravity will send chills down your spine and Spotlight will anger you. It wants to. You'll meet priests who freely admit to abuse and rationalize it in the most appalling way. You'll see playgrounds next to churches. McCarthy is relentless with his script, his characters, and his imagery. The seemingly bottomless evil the Spotlight team and this film exposes deserves nothing less. 

Grade: A

Suffragette uses fake characters to tell a real story. But, fair warning if you're looking for an honest to God portrayal of the Suffrage Movement in early 20th century Great Britain, this isn't it. Suffragette is an eye-opener though, at worst. And some among us might paint modern parallels to the last months of the movement when being a suffragette looked much like being a terrorist today, complete with bombings. 

Movie Reviews: 'Spotlight', 'Suffragette' Wage War on Unjust Institutions
Focus Features

Of course, the suffragettes were far from the terrorists of today. Their modus operandi wasn't to kill anyone but to kick in the door on years of dusty policy and usher England into modernity. Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, Suffragette is far from an easy watch. This is a film about the enormous struggle it takes to effect change. 

Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a 24-year-old who looks well beyond her years thanks to a lifetime spent in dire servitude at the local laundry. She's been there since she was a kid, thrust into a man's world and forced into a life she never wanted. Maud's husband (Ben Whishaw) is a coward; her boss (Geoff Bell) rules over her; and her own country is Hell on Earth.

It's from this fire the Suffrage Movement is forged and the film does an excellent job painting the period as one of unjust insanity. Women of the time had no choice but to fight. It's the battle that lifts the film and it's the fight that will likely shock some theater-goers. Maud falls in with a group of women, some from the laundry, who all have distinct voices and personalities. Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) refuses to shut her mouth, pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to blow everything up, and first-class activist Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) stands strong. Meryl Streep also appears in a limited role as real-life suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst and urges the women towards violence.

The violence is likely what you'll remember about the film. Predictably, the government is a brutal force of evil and Suffragette pulls no punches. The systematic abuse, surveillance, imprisonment, and torture of these women is depicted and it's not easy to watch. A hunger strike in prison is dealt with in particularly vicious fashion. But the story is true and the team of Gavron and Morgan seem devoted to smashing us over the head with it. In the immortal words of John Doe, "Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer."

Grade: B-