Spotlight’s most obvious ‘eureka moment’ scene does not arrive, as in so many journalist procedurals, after a long night of drinking and piecing things together with clippings and red string. Nor is there some sort of secret source who demands a dangerously mysterious meet-up after dark. Instead, three reporters look through a series of public domain files, during work hours, and discover a pattern that has to be confirmed via the use of an Excel spreadsheet. It’s this stubborn commitment to authenticity that makes Spotlight such a distinct Oscar-friendly true story film, the lack of embellishment on an already fascinating story both one of its most commendable virtues and a contributor to its main weakness. Justice is done to this important tale, at the occasional expense of conventional dramatics, in an unshowy and sharply subversive Best Picture frontrunner.
Recovering with aplomb from his last venture, the critically derided Adam Sandler-starring The Cobbler, director Tom McCarthy has chosen to tackle one of the most impactful examples of modern investigative journalism. In mid-2001, the Boston Globe got a new editor, a Floridian Jew (and thus and utterly alienated outsider in Boston) by the name of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Meanwhile, the Spotlight team, the investigative division of the Globe headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), were looking for a story worthy of their talents. Digging into old Globe columns, Marty found an underreported profile of child abuse in the Catholic Church, and set the Spotlight team to dig deeper, eventually uncovering a vast network of paedophile priests and a system that worked to silence the victims and keep the rapists employed.
In the hindsight afforded to us in 2015, this revelation hardly seems all that revelatory, but Spotlight very effectively recreates a world where this kind of story would truly shock America. People simply did not want to believe this kind of systematic cruelty was possible in an institution that is constantly going on about ‘how much good it does for the city’. McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay pulls no punches in its discussion of just what went on in these parishes for years and years. Every victim’s story is both startlingly similar (they almost all came from poor homes with absent father figures), but the exact details, combined with the vastly differing emotions of each victim as they recount their experiences makes the fact that behind the statistics lie real people horrifyingly clear.
In these small roles, the supporting players make large impacts, especially Michael C Creighton, and the main ensemble give predictably excellent performances. It’s very much an ensemble cast, though Mark Ruffalo is the standout, twitchy and hunched as reporter Mike Rezendes. Keaton turns in much quieter work here than he did in Birdman last year, but still does a very fine line in exhausted rage, an emotion that infects all the characters from the relative newcomer Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) to the veteran Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) as their investigation stalls. To have a movie competing for Best Picture that is so clear in its disdain for the Catholic Church and its stranglehold on Boston is bracing and exciting, and challenging authority in the way Spotlight does highlights the importance cinema can have.
Yet, it’s in its reverence to reality that Spotlight faces its biggest challenge. Given the Church’s power and influence, the film is oddly lacking in overt obstacles in the way of the Spotlight team. Yes, the investigation takes a long time and there’s the occasional threateningly non-threatening message or visit from the diocese and its supporters, but the eventual publishing of the story never feels in particular danger. In fact, the biggest setback is entirely unrelated to Catholics – the 9/11 attacks completely overshadowing any other kind of news and forcing the Globe to put its own terrifying discoveries on the backburner while the country recovered.
This faith in the power of the story also shows in the decidedly inconspicuous visuals. McCarthy and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi allow themselves very few flourishes, though their refusal to imply the city-wide scale of the problem with a bunch of landmark shots of Boston is highly admirable. Luckily, the procedure of getting the story to the page is engaging enough to hold your interest, and any triumph the investigative team enjoys is hugely cathartic after watching an entire city allow the skin-crawling transgressions of almost 90 priests to go unchallenged. Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass is 2015’s other notable Boston-set true story Oscar challenger, and Spotlight’s opening scene features a church representative and a backroom deal so shady that it would easily feel of a piece with anything done by Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang.
Every now and then, you may yourself wishing that Spotlight had taken a more explicitly ‘cinematic’ approach to its subject matter, but the eventual payoff would be far less powerful without the dogged truthfulness that McCarthy places so much confidence in. Regrettably, Catholic child abuse is still a painfully relevant issue, and in balancing righteous fury against the institution with humanising the victims of its misdeeds, Spotlight becomes vital viewing.