Filmmakers have long since held a fascination with the world of investigative journalism, and there is a proud history of bringing the subject to the big screen, from All The President’s Men to Zodiac the gripping real life drama and suspense that takes place during investigations, give writers, directors and actors alike rich and compelling subject matter and real human drama to delve into. Spotlight powerfully enters into this proud tradition, telling the powerful and unsettling story of the ‘Spotlight’ team at the Boston Globe who, working with informants and survivors, turn their attention onto the shocking story of the long standing historical child sexual abuse that took place over many decades in the Boston area involving numerous members of the Catholic clergy. Their relentless and tenacious investigative work led to the shroud being lifted on the scandal, and the subsequent stories the team wrote went on to gain the case international attention, and triggered similar scandals across the world. The Spotlight team and The Boston Globe went on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Fourteen years later and Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer have brought their work firmly back into the limelight once again.
From the very outset, we are entered into the general bustle of a working newsroom, we are invited to sit in on the editorial meetings, and given the tour of the Boston Globe, eventually settling in the cramped and uninspiring basement office of the ‘Spotlight’ investigative team. It is quickly apparent, that this is going to be an authentic film about hard work, and from its opening, it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be an exciting thriller, but rather a slower paced film charting the team’s determined investigative process. The suspense eases in slowly with the growing realization that this was a huge story and possibly the biggest story they might ever tell, and one which goes right to the core of the city they are from. The story they begin to piece together has the ability to destabilise whole communities, and irrevocably change the heavily Catholic make-up of the city of Boston. It is not just their city that it threatens to destabilize either, the added dimension is the effect it has on their own respective lives. As native Bostonians, all four members of the small team are forced to question their own experiences, their own upbringings and most challenging of all the impact their work will have on their own families and friends. Being from Boston they intimately understand the power and importance of the Catholic church, and the control it holds over its population. The Church is intrinsically linked with the lives of thousands of Bostonians, and the widespread impact their investigation will have on these communities is one they conscientiously weigh-up against their responsibility to do what they know to be right and reveal the facts they’ve uncovered.
What runs throughout the heart of this story, is the personally challenging idea that the truths they were uncovering were so insidious, damaging, and unfathomable, that they were forced to question all that they thought they knew, and simultaneously place themselves in the dangerous firing line of those in the positions of power in the city, namely the Boston archdiocese. But what on the surface seems like a shocking local story, is thrown open into wider global existential ideas of systemic corruption at the heart of the seats of power. Aside from the awful physical and psychological damage the abuse caused those who suffered it, the story the team are determined to tell is the more troubling idea – with all of its associated insidious implications – that Cardinal Law (the man at the seat of power in the Boston Archdiocese) knew about the abuse that was taking place, and did nothing to prevent it. As the film progresses and the team learn just how deep the roots of this scandal go, and how many people were seemingly aware of its existence but did nothing, the sense of collective disbelief rapidly becomes righteous indignation. It is this new sense of anger, that motivates and energises the team in their efforts to complete their important work.
This is the underlying battle at the heart of the film, and the tone is set early on with the intriguing political meeting between the new editor-in-chief at the Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and one of the most powerful men in Boston, the aforementioned Cardinal Law (played with an ominous and somewhat menacing friendliness by Len Cariou). He portrays a man who is at once gracious and welcoming, but with an ominous tone of warning carrying through that welcome, “the city flourishes when its great institutions work together” are his uncomfortable words of advice, with the implication being that it’s wiser to work with us than against us. Baron – with a dignified focus and polite composure – declines the suggestion, believing the newspaper should work independently of outside motivations and agendas. For his trouble, he is given a copy of the Catholic catechism, a less than subtle political symbol of the power the church and the archdiocese holds in the city.
Following on from the Cardinal’s subtle warning, Tom McCarthy goes about showcasing the individual and collective strengths of the journalists. It is in this aspect where Spotlight begins to come into its own. Tom McCarthy’s direction in conjunction with the excellently composed screenplay he co-wrote with Josh Singer, retains a consistent and urgent focus throughout, slowly increasing the pace and suspense as the investigation progresses. The film focuses its attention increasingly on the relentless resolve of the team, shining a light on their individual characteristics and motivations. Spotlight head editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) grows in frustration and anger as he pursues the men who remain determinedly silent regarding the information of the numerous cases he’s researching, he continually comes into conflict with the lawyers and attorneys, who work to protect the guilty by blocking and preventing his access to the important names and information he requires. Meanwhile, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) tenaciously goes about raiding the archives as well as haranguing his inside man, the attorney representing the victims and seeking to bring their lawsuits against the church, the valiant yet understandably cautious Mitchell Garabedian (played with a quiet and determined resolve by Stanley Tucci). The human cost is investigated by Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who spends time meeting with the victims of the paedophile priests, sympathetically listening to, and giving a voice to the previously voiceless.
A large part of what makes this film the genuine and powerful experience that it is, is its firm grounding in authenticity, determined in its faithful approach to the process of hard work and solid journalism on show, there is no false glamour or sheen on display here. The work is difficult, it keeps the team away from their families for long periods of time, it adds numerous stresses and strains and to their lives; you can almost feel the sweat, the frustration and the fatigue of long days and nights researching and interviewing, chasing leads down dead ends and blind alleys for that small chink of light which opens up a new channel of investigation. Spotlight is a film of hard graft, and it doesn’t pause to aggrandize the process or portray the journalists as heroic figures, they are just ordinary, hard working people trying to do the right thing for the justice and common decency of the innocent victims in this tragic story.
All four journalists are deeply impacted by their research; Robinson is forced to reconcile the fact that he is and has shared close acquaintance with a number of the people who were either directly or indirectly involved in the wider cover-up; Rezendes is challenged into considering how his life may have differed if he hadn’t lost his childhood Catholic faith; and Pfeiffer is left to consider the effect it will have on her own private faith and the close bond she shares with her devoutly Catholic grandmother. There is an obvious personal cost for all of them, and they all become irreversibly changed by the process the investigation forces them to undergo, but equally, they all understand the necessity of the greater impact and overall resolution for good that this represents. The film doesn’t shy away from the difficult implications this story holds, but instead lays it in front of its audience and offers no solution. The film has a positive outcome, but it isn’t a happy ending, not in the traditional sense, it’s an ending, and it’s a contemplative one.
Whilst I’ve mentioned the directorial skill involved and discussed the importance of the structure and skillful writing on display – both aspects which have understandably garnered nominations for awards this awards season – it would be remiss of me not to discuss, some of the individual performances which have also gained critical recognition. Both Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have been nominated or a number of best supporting acting awards, and they are deserved nominations. Not unlike Christian Bale’s similar nominations for his role in The Big Short, they can be seen as slightly curious given the ensemble nature of the film, however, in this case, there is a little more understanding of these particular decisions, Ruffalo and McAdams are part of the beating heart of this story, especially Mark Ruffalo, who puts in a truly passionate and frenzied performance, a performance which is the relentless metronome throughout the film, the tone and tempo to which the others march to. Michael Keaton’s Walter Robinson is the ultimate decision maker in the film, and Keaton’s performance in the role is filled with the determination and resolve that his character needed to possess, but it is continually Ruffalo’s brusque Rezendes who passionately calls for action, culminating in his confrontational outburst with Robinson over the urgent need to go to press. It’s two actors fully committed and creating the kind of real human drama, that only two actors at the top of their game could achieve, and it’s Ruffalo’s empassioned speech which rings in the ears long after the film has finished. McAdams is a much more understated performance, going about her work with a quiet endeavor, representing the victims’ stories and giving the film the added pathos it requires, her impact is more subtle but should not be overlooked when considering it against the more forceful voices that she works alongside. It is at this stage that it is worth mentioning the unheralded work that the oft unacknowledged Brian d’Arcy James puts in as the fourth member of the team, Matt Carroll, the man who deals with the largely thankless yet equally important office based tasks. The ensemble is the core of this film, but the brilliant individual performances that make up that ensemble performance are certainly worthy of the attention that they’ve garnered.
Ultimately, this was a story that to be done well, needed to be taken seriously, it required a delicate and sensitive hand to tell it, and a cast of actors who could adequately do justice to the importance and power of the challenging subject matter. The critical success that this film has subsequently gained is due to the fact that it was made with all these considerations fully comprehended; a focused director at the helm, working from a carefully considered screenplay with a supremely talented cast, all comes together to form the powerful and authentic film that this is. Spotlight is the strong sum of its assembled parts; given the calibre of acting, writing and directing talent that have come together in this film, there can be no great surprise that Spotlight is every bit as strong, as the story is important.