Out of the films that have received heavy acclaim in this awards season, Spotlight has been the one that’s felt the most tailor made to be enjoyed be me. I’m a sucker for films about investigative journalism, having given rave reviews to All The President’s Men and Kill The Messenger, the cast sounded stellar and the story of investigations into the sex abuse in the Catholic Church fascinates me (by the way, if you get the chance I highly recommend Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God). However, after how disappointed I was with The Revenant considering how critically acclaimed it was, I went into this film with more muted expectations, but I needn’t have bothered, this is an excellent film.
The film focuses on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team in 2001 who get assigned to look into a priest accused of sexually abusing children by their new editor, Marty Baron. After initially writing off the story, along with getting scorn from others at the Globe, the Spotlight team discovers that the story goes much deeper than they originally thought and could potentially go all the way up to the Vatican. The main thing the film does well is showing the horror of what was happening to the children, not so much the crimes (which were horrific) but the culture behind them. Over the course of the film we see that a lot of key evidence for the case was buried in old clippings from the Globe, some of the documents they received for the investigation they were actually sent years previously. We see that the story has been covered up at every possible opportunity and that there’s no smoking gun for this story, all the details are tucked away at the sidelines, ready for anyone to access, including publically available books showing the location of treatment centres for the priests who were caught, one of which happens to be around the corner from the house of one of the team. The film shows just how powerful the Catholic Church as an institution is and how they were able to bury the story for so long (including trying to get one of the few lawyers investigating them disbarred), how the priests were able to abuse the children, the psychological damage they did, the perverse justifications they gave for their crimes and why so few people were willing to believe what happened. It is a genuinely terrifying look at how crimes such as these could stay buried for so long.
Another area in which the film excels is with the portrayal of the investigation. It is shown just how long it takes for the investigation to be conducted and through this comes the true heroism of the team: sitting on the story until they get all their facts straight. The head of the team, Walter ‘Robbie’ Robertson, knows that if they get even one detail wrong, the entire story could collapse so he has the team hold the story, even with some of the team being outraged over the decision he doesn’t relent. Any other film would not have taken Robbie’s side but this film does, showing that holding a story for a while is more important that rushing it out. It also does a good job of showing how real life events can impact investigations, with the team having to put the investigation on hold to cover 9/11. This all comes back to a really tight, lean screenplay by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. There’s no fat to this script, every scene fits together perfectly and there’s great use of a prologue to show just how long this has been going on for, adding greater weight to the Spotlight investigation. If any scene of this film had been cut out, the power of this film would have been lost.
The acting is excellent across the board. The clear standout is Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendez. His journalistic integrity is clear throughout along with his drive but Ruffalo also shows the harm it is doing to his personal life, being alienated from his wife as a result of his work. It also shows a hotheaded, reckless side to the character as he’s the one pushing for the story to be released early. Michael Keaton meanwhile does a great job as Robbie, the growing horror over what he discovers being effectively represented, something also shown well by John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy, along with the guilt he feels over not doing anything sooner. Rachel McAdams gives a great understated performance, showing the impact the story has on nominally religious people and having a lot of weight to her character regarding her position at Spotlight without it needing to be set out. Liev Schrieber does a great job showing the outsider aspect of Marty Baron, especially since he’s a Jew from Miami who doesn’t like baseball working in Boston and his speech patterns throughout the film present that brilliantly. Stanley Tucci does a great job as Mitch Garabedian, showing a weary nature over what he’s covering and his anger and paranoia over the church’s actions against him, originally coming across like a standard eccentric grump until you see what he has to deal with. The people playing the victims meanwhile do a great job, showing how the priests were able to abuse them on a more psychological level and the damage it has done to them later in life. It’s hard to properly talk about the performances in the film because the brilliance in them is in how understated they all are, the only really showy performance is Ruffalo, that’s why I can’t really talk about the performances from the like of Slattery, McAdams and D’Arcy, their performances are incredibly understated and you need to see the film for yourself to understand how they work.
On a technical level the film is really solid. There’s isn’t really any flash to any of the scenes, but there doesn’t need to be. The best way I can think of to describe it is to compare it to The Revenant. The Revenant focused on it’s style but lost sight of the story, here it’s the other way round. There isn’t anything to make this film stand out but this works to the films advantage. It does a great job at highlighting the story, making sure you notice the little details. This is aided by great location work highlighting when churches are located in close proximity to playgrounds. The music by Howard Shore meanwhile is equally understated but again this helps the film by not making it melodramatic. This is a fine example of using the filmmaking tools in the right way to ensure the power of the story isn’t lost.
Overall, Spotlight is easily in the top tier of journalism movies with All The President’s Men. The simple, understated style of the acting and the direction allows the story and the script to shine, highlighting the underlying horror of what the Spotlight team uncovered and the need for journalists to undertake investigations of this caliber.
My Rating: 5/5