Essential viewing for film fans, journalists, and all who seek to fight injustice.
Spotlight stands out amongst other true stories vying for awards attention this season, as whilst the audience can know how big the story turned out to be, writer-director Tom McCarthy makes it seem as if the characters already know the basics, right from the start. This isn’t the story of how an unassuming group of reporters uncovered a harrowing truth: that certain members of the Bostonian Catholic clergy were abusing young children is established in the very first scene, a cold open set in the mid-70s. That the Church covered it up is understood, as well as the power they wield in the city. The Spotlight reporters know it. Boston knows it. The new Editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) from Florida knows it. What unfolds is no mystery. It’s an investigative drama, and an excellent one too.
Tom McCarthy’s film tells that true story, of the team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe who revealed the ongoing actions of the Catholic Archdiocese, working within and against the justice system to cover up the molestation of young children by clergymen. Representing that team are Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and their leader Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton). As they talk to previous victims, the lawyers of the accused and the abused, and people closest to the Church, the team quickly realises just how big the truth is, and how carefully it needs to be handled.
One thing that Spotlight certainly does better than any Boston-set film since at least The Town is to see the city as more than just the heavy-accented south side Yorkie; there are middle class residential zones with tight streets and brownstone houses, suit-populated skyscrapers, and McCarthy travels through the whole lot, frequently contrasting a big city seen through long establishing shots, with the more contained, close-up feeling brought to the many offices within which the movie takes place. Every scene in the city and the film is gorgeously, purposefully shot. And every character – major or minor – knows each other, and knows their boss. The city feels huge, yet lived-in, not a crime and poverty riddled cartoon.
Each one of the actors give great performances, hitting distinct yet united beats. Schreiber’s Baron is one of the scruffiest and most down-to-earth Editors committed to film, giving him both easy warmth and command, as he goes from outsider to triumphant leader. McAdams gives what feels like a rare, non-sentimental dramatic performance (down to the quality of the writing here more than any lack of talent on her behalf) as Sacha, who takes on some of the toughest parts of the investigation: interviewing the survivors of the abuse. She beautifully anchors Sacha’s probing questions with genuine care and determination; in her home and office she comes across as more relaxed and fun, yet still conflicted about how this story will affect her family. Ruffalo’s Mike meanwhile works with the resilient lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (the ever wonderful Stanley Tucci), Ruffalo mixing his natural charm with an unspoken pain that gets channelled directly into an enthusiasm for his work. He also gets the most melodramatic scene, as he’s brought to the end of his patience when Keaton’s Robby decides to wait out publishing the story despite new evidence about the extent of the abuse. It’s a moment that’s earned however, and Ruffalo brings that essential warmth to Mike – where the scene could otherwise start a rift between him and the team for the rest of the film, here it’s something that they all move on from.
If it sounds like each of these performances are being described in fairly synonymous ways, it’s intentional. Every actor hits similar notes – each of the journalists work towards the same goal, with the same dedication to their work. The distinct powers of the actors lift the characters above feeling similar, and there’s impeccable balance in the script, yet truly no one member of the team was more significant than another, as the story took their combined works to break. The film sets out the ways journalism can work as a tool against unjust systems, and is bold enough to not turn away from the mistakes that are, and were made by the same journalists that worked to undo them.
Spotlight is a work of brilliant restraint and balance. It’s important but never self-important, engrossing without being confusing, entertaining yet not particularly light-hearted, challenging and ultimately bittersweet in the end, whilst never enveloping you in a feeling of hopelessness. There’s great work from every actor, and an understanding of the importance of good journalism that makes it relevant, yet it’s McCarthy’s direction and script that makes this essential.
Spotlight (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy, is released in the UK by Entertainment One Pictures on 29th January. Certificate 15.