Making a film about journalists and journalism probably sounds boring to most people – I am one and I can see why! But All The President’s Men (look it up) set a benchmark in the 1970s, and Spotlight is a great – if slow and low-key film – that shows how reporting, investigating and taking risks can achieve something important and world-changing.
In 2001, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team of four investigative journalists – led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) – are tasked by new head editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) to look into reports of priests abusing children in the city. Supported by fellow editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the team starts to dig, and with the assistance of spiky lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), unearth a truly horrific cover-up of widespread child abuse by Catholic priests, across Boston and beyond.
First of all – I’ve gone on in recent reviews about “true stories” and whatnot, but here this film is devoted to sensitively telling the truth about the unbelievable reporting and disgusting levels of corruption, in both Boston and the Catholic church. The film could not have been made without considering thousands of victims, and it’s only right that it’s more about the facts and the reporting of the truth than any great deal of “woo, we broke a story” nonsense. This does somewhat cloud the film in a mix of anger, horror and mundanity, but there’s also hope and a degree of satisfaction watching these people help victims get recognition for the crimes they suffered.
Acting-wise, Keaton and his team are all pretty good, though he, Ruffalo in particular and D’Arcy James are given more time than McAdams, whose personal connections to what the story might do to religious people could have been further explored. I didn’t think Ruffalo deserved an awards nomination, but his frenzied and workaholic Rezendes is filled with the actor’s typical thoughtfulness and spark of Hulk-ish rage. I’ve never seen D’Arcy James before, but his character’s familial concerns give the actor some inner tension, while Keaton is so a laid-back you almost forget he’s in scenes until he sparks to life, though he’s pretty good when he does.
Tucci’s lawyer Garabedian is a perfect match for the actor’s fussy, stubborn archetype, but I liked how Tucci shows his gradual thawing as he realises Rezendes and the team are working to help the victims as he is, and he also shows a grim determination as a lawyer for the most vulnerable of victims. Schreiber and Slattery are more in the background and understated but offer drive and support throughout, while Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup at first appear typical, selfish lawyers but whose parts in the scandal are more complex, and the pressure on Sheridan’s character particularly gradually unwraps, with he and Keaton sharing a series of escalating scenes. A series of lesser-known actors also give voice to the abused, with their short but impactful performances respectful to the horrible treatment so many experienced as children, and then grew up dealing with.
The film is nothing much to look at, but that doesn’t matter, because filming it in Boston, in that city’s varied and church-filled suburbs, gives it a more realistic feel. There always seems to be a church looming into frame, echoing the hold over people Catholicism has there, and director (and co-writer) Tom McCarthy sidesteps the dangers of the ‘Bahstan’ accent by largely giving main characters neutral US ones! Howard Shore composes a very slight soundtrack, but the music is ever-present and supporting of events, with one particularly chilling Christmas carol making a point around halfway through.
Procedural films can, by their very nature, be a bit boring, but then it’s in the name – you see the procedure the journalists go through to build their story, and while that doesn’t lead to many tense or action-filled scenes, the real-life events didn’t, so why pretend! Yes, there are scenes of discussion, of research and cleverly-cut montages of doorstepping people for comments, but McCarthy deftly stages these scenes to help the film keep some momentum. Towards the end, it all gets a lot slower, but the final revelations – particularly one element of the last act – give the film some life when it began to flag.
I personally felt enraged afterwards, because of the corruption, injustice and abuse that went undiscovered for so long (not just in the US), and these sort of real-life, issue movies cleverly achieve this by trying to stay as accurate as possible (Suffragette is one such example). You gain respect for the work done not just by the journalists, but by the lawyers fighting for the victims, and most of all for the victims, whose silent suffering was thankfully ended by the investigation.
It won’t be for everyone, especially if you have less patience or don’t like depressing subjects – and it isn’t an Oscar-worthy triumph – but I found it a thoughtful, somewhat inspirational testament to the victims and the work of the Spotlight team.