Dir: Tom McCarthy
With print media in decline, this film reminds us of the power it once had and the importance of investigative journalists taking their job seriously, knowing that a story handled in the right way can have huge impact.
The Boston Globe’s investigative team (played by actors including Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton) start working on a story about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, discovering that more than just a handful of priests are involved, the problem was widespread and deliberately covered up.
I’m not going to use this review to discuss the abuse that the Spotlight team investigated, the film makes it perfectly clear that it was serious, horrific and on a shocking scale in a far more effective way than I ever could. I will however discuss the handling of it by the film which simply I thought was excellent. Starting with a brief opening scene that establishes the problem a few decades earlier than the main action, we the audience are given insight into how high things go right from the start so we’ll not be questioning or in doubt as it’s investigated. Along with some simple opening titles, the film never tries to detract from the story with anything overly showy, just pieces of information revealed and presented in a clear and logical way, so that we can piece the story together as the journalists do.
Early on we learn that the paper is getting a new editor, I worried it would mean that job cuts and shake-ups were imminent that may derail any investigations, however the editors role as played by Liev Schreiber is one of the most interesting. Rather than causing problems at the paper, he turns out to be very positive change as it’s made very clear that the fact he’s an outsider means he brings a much-needed new perspective to the handling of the story. Through his arrival we are also perfectly placed to learn about the team we will be watching, introduced to them as he is, learning that they take the investigations they want and develop them for as long as required to get the story right.
A really great cast has been assembled here and all feel like they are giving their very best. I can see the merit of awards that have a ‘Best Ensemble Cast’ category, an accolade the film has won almost every time it has been nominated, because it’s hard to single out any one specific actor from this, they are all great and it’s the collective that works so well. The ‘Spotlight’ team and those associated with them are the lead, rather than any one specific journalist or other character. Most of the cast met their real-life counterparts, and in some television interviews they have been interviewed alongside each other. I thought that was a nice thing to do, it reaffirms the reality of the story while nicely honouring these journalists, which much of the film also does, showing how they gave much time and effort to their work even at the cost of their home lives.
The film features two opposite types of lawyer, brilliantly contrasted in every way from how they act and dress, to how their codes of practice result in one being rich and the other clearly struggling. Stanley Tucci is great in his role as the difficult to get along with but yet more principled of the two, Mitchell Garabedian. There are tense moments of conflict with the lawyers, neither making it easy for the team to get the facts they need, and these lawyers are pivotal in the investigation, providing moments of exposition that help to keep things clear.
The victims (sometimes called ‘survivors’ in the film) who don’t seem to be pushing agendas (you’ll see that there are others too) are the most powerful ones to hear from. The film only features a few of them but we learn there are many more the team spoke to. One interview ends up in front of a church with a playground right next to it, a truly striking image that’s made clear note of so that it doesn’t go unnoticed.
It’s uncomfortable viewing at times which is not surprising for the subject but it doesn’t overly dwell on details, just the handful of victims who tell their story make all the important points clear, focusing more on how it’s affected them than how it occurred. Then the impact comes from how the investigation widens out to show the scope of the problem and how rooted in the church it was. It doesn’t resort to over-dramatic shouting, conflict, or any sort or heightened drama of any sort. There’s one brief outburst that’s entirely justified in the context of how much effort and work these journalists have invested into the story, a clip featured a lot on TV when the film is being discussed that expresses a key point but doesn’t accurately convey the overall tone of the film. Rather than trying to heighten drama in those ways it just lets the simple and straightforward telling of the story do the work, it doesn’t need anything more complex as it’s so well-judged in showing how the investigation unfolded and lets the facts do the shouting for themselves.
Long lists at the end of the film of places where similar situations were discovered show how the scope of this problem went far beyond Boston and this investigation. Rather than making a film that delved into the unpleasant details of abuse, this takes one key example, the Spotlight led investigation, and uses it to brilliantly shed light on matters while keeping focus on something more palatable, journalists doing their due diligence. With the incredible ensemble cast and a tone that measures itself perfectly, this is a powerful film that deserves the recognition it’s getting.
‘Spotlight’ won ‘Best Original Screenplay’ at last weekend’s BAFTAs. It is nominated (as the poster shows) for 6 Academy Awards in the categories of ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for Mark Ruffalo, ‘Supporting Actress’ for ‘Rachel McAdams, ‘Original Screenplay’ and ‘Best Editing’. I expect it will get a few of these and it deserves to.