Director: Tom McCarthy
Major Players: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber
Out Of Five: Five
Until this month’s Golden Globes, Spotlight was seen as the big contender in the Best Picture category. But it came away empty handed and, although it’s nominated in the Director and Picture categories at the BAFTAs and Oscars, its momentum has trickled away. And it’s easy to see why. It’s been losing out to the film with more media appeal, The Revenant. That’s not to say that Inarritu’s revenge saga isn’t a powerful film, but how can photographs of a group of journalists talking to each other compete with a shaggy Di Caprio being mauled by a bear or hiding in the body cavity of a dead horse? Yet, for me, Spotlight, is the better film. A more complete one.
It’s based on true events. When the Boston Globe recruited Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) as its new editor in 2001, he asked the investigative team from the Spotlight page to look into a hitherto almost ignored story. That Catholic priests had been abusing children in their parishes but, more seriously, that the church in Boston, under Cardinal Law, had deliberately covered it up. The film traces the team’s investigations, which uncovered a scandal that involved over 200 priests in the city, lead to the Cardinal’s resignation and the church losing its power and influence in the city almost overnight.
So it’s a lower-key, almost unassuming film, without spectacular scenery or high drama but, like its characters, utterly determined to tell the story and tell it in a way that respects its importance. And, while it would be easy to paint the church as a wholly corrupt establishment – indeed, it’s not a flattering portrait – that would be a cop-out. There’s more to it, much of which has to do with the city of Boston itself.
It’s like a big village, where everybody knows everybody else or at least their family. They know each other’s secrets and there is much that everybody knows about but never talks about. There’s another level of meaning to just about every conversation. And just about everybody in the city has Irish Catholic heritage somewhere along the line, a loyalty that gives the church enormous power. Church buildings dominate the skyline: they’re on nearly every street corner, a silent menace, almost eavesdropping on what’s being said.
The staff on the Globe are local as well, making it a truly Boston paper. And that makes the investigation intensely personal for the team: it involves people they know and, if the story is true, will affect them directly. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) can’t tell her grandmother what she’s working on: the old lady goes to mass three times a week and her reaction when the article appears in the paper is a small but incredibly pivotal moment in the film. She represents the thoughts and feelings of just about everybody reading it. One of the constants in her life has turned out to be tainted and her faith has been taken away from her. Her eyes say it all. What can she believe in now?
Spotlight isn’t a film with thrills a minute, but it’s enormously absorbing and fascinating, one that gradually builds the tension so that it’s only at the end that you realise your shoulders are hunched up under your ears. It’s not a tub-thumper and you wouldn’t call the journalists crusading, but they know when something is wrong and they know a good story. This one is better than most because it genuinely matters. It’s a film with a quiet dignity and determination, rather like editor Baron himself.
This is one of those rare occasions when I can’t pick out a film’s strengths and that’s because it all meshes together to make a complete and very satisfying whole. The cast work as an ensemble – not just the journalists but also the people they interview and deal with. Liev Schreiber is quietly impressive as Baron, an apparently cold fish who is both principled and, in the words of Spotlight’s editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), likes a good fight. At the other end of the spectrum is Mark Ruffalo’s journalist Mark Rezendes, the most extrovert of the team, a whirlwind of a man who follows his emotions just a little bit too much. Ruffalo is terrific, playing against type: watch how he explodes when Robby refuses to go early with the story. What makes that scene even more interesting is that you know they’re both right.
Spotlight is the quiet film of 2016, the one with a serious issue at its heart and the one that saves its biggest shock until the end. That seemingly never-ending list of cases of child abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests around the world. And the fact that Cardinal Law, although he resigned from his post in Boston, was given a high ranking job at the Vatican. It’s all within living memory. Has anything changed? That long list points towards the answer.
Spotlight is released in cinemas on Friday, 29 January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 28 January.