One of the best movies in a recent surge of good movies, Spotlight comes to UK screens this Friday. Here’s my review of a rich, angry but thrilling drama.
The ‘Spotlight’ of the title refers specifically to the Boston Globe’s special investigative journalism team but also applies to the illumination investigative journalism can bring to the darkest corners of society. The Globe created the team in the nineteen sixties and it has won the Pulitzer prize five times throughout the years.
A small team with a nondescript office away from the papers main news floor the four person Spotlight team chooses their stories (a rare luxury for journalists), and is given the resources to chase down a story over an extended period. The ftime period of the film is over the tumultuous years 2001-2003. initially the team are looking for a new topic to investigate (they don’t deal in scoops), Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) favours investigating rumours of police funding irregularities but journalist Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) thinks its a dead end.
Matters are taken out of their hands by the Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Scanning recent press clips, Baron’s newshound faculties have picked up the scent of a story in with the recent exposure of a paedophile priest in the city. There were claims (largely dismissed in the media) that Boston’s Archbishop had been aware of allegations and not acted. Baron asks Robinson to put Spotlight’s team to the task of tugging at the story’s threads. They have no idea of the tangled and sordid mess that is about to unravel.
Unless you have lived a mercifully sheltered life never watching, listening or reading about current affairs, then you are aware of the sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church in the first decade of the 2000s. You may not be aware of the precise role of the Boston Globe’s investigation blowing the story open but from early on the direction of travel in director Tom McCarthy’s gripping drama is clear. The film’s greatest trick is in taking a narrative with an end point never in doubt and still making an utterly absorbing and gripping experience. Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, McCarthy uses a supremely talented cast, an excellent screenplay, and presents characters worth caring about, so the destination is of less import than the journey.
While completely different in style and scale from Lenny Abrhamson’s Room both films are stories about abuse that feature no scenes of actual abuse (the victims are given a voice, and a powerful one, but McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer wisely resit the temptation to dramatise their awful experiences in exploitative flashbacks). Spotlight is on paper not an obvious choice for a Friday night at the movies. It sounds heavy.
However, Spotlight is an undeniably entertaining movie. It’s not a thriller. There are no attempts to contrive suspense by implying the journalists are in any physical danger (think of the driving range sequence in Michael Mann’s The Insider for an example of this). However, the film has a thriller’s pace, a gradual and increasingly urgent escalation that pulls you through the story and leaves one breathless. It feels slightly debased to describe a film dealing with horrible crimes as ‘exciting’ but it is. More so than many an action film.
This a procedural movie that shows journalists doing their jobs, engaged in often thankless tasks like waiting for court papers, cold calling potential sources, and pounding pavements having doors slammed in their faces. In general the journalist protagonists don’t dress well, do not appear to have Hollywood grooming regimes, eat badly and drive crappy Japanese cars. Schreiber may wear a well cut suit and has the editor’s salary, but even his character is shown having to work on the promotional grind of community awards ceremonies playing politics. This does not constitute a portrayal of journalism as a glamorous career, but perhaps as a noble one.
Spotlight tells an extremely complicated story with absolute clarity. You will never be lost in its complexities even when the level of corruption reaches mind-boggling levels. The sheer depth of the conspiracy of silence and the tacit complicity of authority figures is made very apparent early in the film when abuse survivor Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) arrives at the office with box files of evidence. At this point the team are still thinking in terms of a few ‘bad egg’ priests and a limited cover up, Saviano alleges that the problem is endemic among the clergy on a scale so vast that he sounds like (and has been treated as) a tin hat wearing conspiracy nut.
The performances in this film are uniformly top notch with no egos on display. No-one is trying to steal the scene. While Ruffalo is given one barnstorming speech, one that has been instrumental in gaining him awards nods, it fits with his hotheaded character. The best scenes are quieter. McAdams character attending church with her mother and suddenly looking overcome with the hypocrisy. Keaton underplaying superbly shows an incredible range after the pyrotechnics of Birdman, allowing the lines on his weathered face to show the inner emotional life of a character who is always keeping his hand hidden. I really liked Brian d’Arcy James, who is exceptional in showing the growing horror of the story from the perspective of a middle class parent well insulated from its effects.
One of the most chilling aspects of Spotlight is in its detailing of the level of premeditation applied by sexual predators, their careful selection and grooming of victims based on social and class factors, occasionally by abusing the privileged intimacy being a Priest grants. However, the film isn’t really interested in providing hissable villains. In a key scene Baron advises the team not to publish an already explosive story, he knows that there is a far bigger story underneath. To publish too soon would allow it to become simply about a few ‘bad priests’. Baron wants to attack the system that has allowed the abuse to flourish and has conspired to keep it secret.
Special mention must go to the actors portraying the survivors of childhood abuse. Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton, and Jimmy LeBlanc all play very different survivors all of whom have found their adult lives haunted by their experiences. It is to the film’s great credit that it largely chooses not to give a stage to the abusers, instead to give their victims powerful, disturbing, but also inspirational stories to tell. As the lawyer fighting their cause, Stanley Tucci is also reliably superb. His character is Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer of Armenian descent with a reputation of being ‘difficult’ is like Baron an outsider in Bostonian society.
There has been a small amount of criticism that McCarthy’s direction is overly televisual. Indeed the film has a cold and grey aesthetic. However, the director’s decision to actively eschew stylistic flourishes is just as much an aesthetic choice as shoving a blue filter over the lens would have been. This does not constitute an artless film, and it isn’t TV. TV is episodic and ongoing. Spotlight is designed for a finite running time and expertly edited to reach a satisfying and dramatic conclusion. One of the very best of the current crop of movies vying for awards attention, Spotlight never feels like a naked grab for prestige (the subject could not be a harder sell) and this is a film that will linger long after the red carpets are rolled up and stowed away.