Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 29th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama; History
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber
At the inception of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, The Boston Globe newspaper is in the process of appointing its new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Despite this change, there remains a prevailing emphasis on ensuring the retention of local flavour. More than that actually; in upholding a local backbone prompted by the paper’s titular investigative team and its head man, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). The aforementioned Baron, blunt yet adept, arrives without any notion of hedonistic aplomb, a trait that reflects McCarthy’s exceptional outing as a whole.
Sometimes the film that resonates most is the one draped in assured, quality simplicity. Though some might disagree with the loftiness of my ranking, such simplicity is what endeared me so much to Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. And it’s a similar simple touch that paves the path for Spotlight, a film so rich and so thrilling. McCarthy directs with a stillness, allowing his actors to act and their words to burn into the audience’s psyche without distraction. This trust affords the Spotlight team — Baron, Robby, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradley Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all real life journalists who, at the turn of the millennium, took the Catholic Church to task over child abuse allegations — a platform to build their case.
Often, the camera diverts our attention towards battered notepads and scribbling hands, distinguishing the individual personalities within the team: tougher to read, Rezendes jots down notes underneath a table while interviewing a victim whereas Pfeiffer writes in plain view, her inclinations clearer and her projection softer. The former is a bundle of journalistic energy, constantly on the move and posing point-counterpoints. Rezendes is immensely dedicated to his craft — they all are, refreshingly — but perhaps more so to aiding the course of justice. He and Robby discuss the need for leisure time and Robby points out Rezendes’ only leisure time is his daily jog to work.
These reporters are studious, careful. They take their time to iron every crease, collating date from victims, legal papers and even Globe archives. It’s true investigative journalism executed with thoroughness, so much so that we feel drawn into the process. The tone is almost anti-Sorkin: there’s an air of justifiable caution on display here that Sorkin’s TV journalism jaunt The Newsroom bypassed in favour of addictive urgency. Both methods work, but the slower approach suits Spotlight’s sensitive subject matter far more (it also implores you to listen, therefore stretches of dialogue are easier to follow than those penned by Sorkin).
McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ground such a grand story in local truths — the religious corruption infects a familiar neighbourhood. In any other situation this sort of coincidence might feel contrived, but not here where the sheer breadth of wrongdoing is so painstakingly relayed. Locality doesn’t immunise the team from significant global events; it’s 2001 therefore 9/11 is unavoidable, especially since journalism is our vantage point, and the attack drives all resources away from the child abuse scandal. Gamesmanship between rival city papers further funds McCarthy’s realistic portrayal of the job. If those realities aren’t enough, the reporting process at least thrives on-screen. (Even the aesthetic fits the journalistic groove, tinged with a greyish palette that matches the occupational ambiguity. It feels like a newsroom; we even see a printing press in action.)
Much like The Big Short, which also follows a brand of unethical discovery, Spotlight pointedly plants its ballpoint on one side of the debate. “Knowledge is one thing. But faith, faith is another,” says Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), leader of the diocese, with more than a hint of guiltlessness. McCarthy and co. are not against Catholicism but rather the structural inadequacies of certain segments of the Church, and their evidence is inadmissible. The team announce their respective affiliations to the religion (very little), undermining accusations of bias and offering up a tiny slice of their otherwise unexplored personal lives. And that’s how it should be. After all, this is an investigation and investigations should, ideally, lack personality.
Forget stopping short at admonishing priests, lawyers are also targeted for their mistakes (Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup play immoral attorneys opposite Stanley Tucci’s more upstanding lawman). Nor does journalism itself receive a free pass. This is as much a celebration of the profession as anything else, but in order to celebrate there has to be a level of humility. We see political jousting both within the Globe offices and outwith, during which we learn of costly past mistakes. Ignorance is the main allegation and this honesty resonates, adding roundedness to these real life characters who are far from impervious to perfection.
Speaking of which, those in charge of casting ought to be acclaimed for amassing such terrific depth. Apart from a solitary outburst of pent-up rage from Rezendes, powerfully delivered by Ruffalo, the performances are universally restrained. They’re quietly indelible too: Schreiber displays an uncanny knack for convincing without extravagance while McAdams, nominated for an Oscar, bears a warmth free from condescension. Of everyone, Keaton is the one who oozes most occupational comfort (as he should, given he plays the group’s editor), his aura exceedingly knowledgeable.
For this to work, the Spotlight team have to purvey a sense of well-oiled camaraderie and they absolutely do. The same can be said for McCarthy’s film, though to speak of his work just in terms of proficiency would be demeaning. It is proficient; it’s also socially reflective and genuinely gripping. Holes are punched in great institutions with justification, but you won’t find any holes in the story. For all the right reasons, Spotlight may well make you fall in love with journalism.
Images copyright (©): Open Road Films