Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams
Watch Spotlight online in the UK: BFI Player / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark,” Marty Baron (Schreiber) tells the Spotlight team. A group of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe, they’ve always been given free hand to choose their own story, until Marty is appointed the new editor of the paper and tells them to look into a case of child sex abuse by a Roman Catholic priest. What begins as one man being moved around the city, though, soon emerges as a widespread problem – and an equally widespread cover-up.
The Boston Globe’s investigation in 2001 was huge, bringing the matter into the public eye, giving victims a chance to come forward, and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. It’s the kind of difference that journalists dream of making, and the kind of landmark achievement that Hollywood loves to depict. But while journalists on screen are often reduced to stereotypical hacks, Spotlight rings with authenticity, from the paper’s lengthy meetings arguing about whether and when to publish their findings to the writers’ efforts to double-check every source.
The script, by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, methodically works through the case without rushing, taking its time to examine the ramifications that each new revelation has. That also gives the terrific cast room to tap into the realism with low-key, convincing performances. Rachel McAdams becomes increasingly conflicted as Sacha, unable to attend mass anymore with her devout grandma, while John Slattery’s newsroom veteran, Ben Bradlee Jr., and Michael Keaton’s team leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson, find themselves challenged with the fact that they didn’t report the matter years before.
“Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top, down,” demands Marty – another piece of dialogue that is deliberately unshowy, but dramatic nonetheless. Schreiber, who has long been one of the most underrated actors on screen, is an immense, yet invisible, presence, giving the team the outsider perspective it needs to overcome its connections and culpability. Ruffalo delivers one of his best turns to date as Michael Rezendes, the member of the team who becomes most riled up by their findings; as the investigation uncovers more victims, he becomes more uneasy, never quite capable of sitting still. Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, is as chameleonic as ever as an attorney representing those who have been abused by the church.
Together, the ensemble match the star wattage of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s classic account of the Watergate scandal. The comparison between the two journalism movies is easy to make, but also highly deserved, not in Spotlight’s over-arching conspiracy, but in its precise, accomplished presentation. Director Tom McCarthy is unfussy at the helm, but constantly frames the story within the context of the city brushing the scandal under the carpet; almost every external shot has a church lingering quietly in the background, leaving the notion of Boston’s collective guilt literally hanging over the whole picture.
Such careful restraint throughout gives the few moments of emotion real weight – the perfect counterpart to Alex Gibney’s similarly-themed documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa, which, if anything, was too stylised in its depiction of the issue. The result is masterful piece of cinema that knows when not to seem cinematic. Spotlight is a film that is unafraid of stumbling in the dark, giving the shocking glimpses of reality all the more impact. Spotlight’s most powerful moments involve a first-hand account from a victim, a chillingly detached response from a priest, and a long list of cities where clerical abuse has been reported. Which is exactly how it should be. This is important, urgent, gripping film-making.