Director: Tom McCarthy.
15 | 2h 8min | Biography, Drama, History | 29 January 2016 (UK)
Journalism films often spin towards one of two poles. At one end you have the journalist as sleazy kerb crawler, making up the news more than reporting it, like Kirk Douglas’s amoral hack in Ace in the Hole. Then you have Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, possibly the most well-known of this particular class of film, with the over-caffeinated, under-styled but dogged journos portrayed as the foot soldiers of democracy. Spotlight, the new film from director Tom McCarthy and a dramatisation of how the Boston Globe paper uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, effectively places itself firmly and proudly in the latter camp. The subject matter has its own inherent dramatic appeal, but Mccarthy’s film also skilfully condenses a long-running and complex investigation into two hours of running time whilst , despite keeping the focus on the reporters and showcasing their talents, making sure the horrific impact the crimes had on the victims is re-affirmed. In many ways a conventional and blow-by-blow narrative film, it is still a slickly-handled, well-paced and acted piece of message filmmaking. If printis dying, this film makes the case that journalism still deserves to be kept on life support.
Of course, the Boston Globe’s devastating expose became international news in the early 2000s (the investigation began in 2001, partly interrupted and overshadowed by 9/11) but for the uninitiated, the film’s title refers to The Globe’s so-called Spotlight team, who specialise in deep investigations that require a lot of time and money up front. At the core of the team at the time of the story breaking are leader and chief reporter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), and his bloodhound journalists Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Based in the unlikely and unglamorous basement area of the Globe’s office, the group are introduced to us mulling over a police corruption story, when the arrival of the new and widely mistrusted ‘outsider’ senior editor, Marty Baron, results in a shift in direction. Baron has heard about the activities of a local pedophile priest, one John Geoghan, and a lawyer who says that Cardinal Law (the Archbishop of Boston) knew that Geoghan was sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop him. Baron urges the Spotlight team to investigate the story, and we tag along with them as they dig deeper into a scandal that not only uncovers a shocking number of these abuse cases, but a frighteningly widespread network of complicit structures and authority figures across the city. ‘This is a Catholic town’ starts to take on a much darker meaning.
Key to keeping up the tension and sense of mystery around a story, who’s outcome is already known, is the restriction by the filmmakers of our POV to the journalists at the heart of the story. We never learn anything before they do. There are no flashbacks or flash-forwards, or on-screen text or narration. Also, given the time period, the film also works as an interesting, sometimes frankly unsettling display of how good reporting ‘back then’ had to involve a lot of exhausting-looking paper shuffling and pavement tramping, this being an era where the internet was running at dial-up speeds. It is understandable if audiences of a younger generation find themselves shaking their head at the sight of the Spotlight team grabbing books listing priests’ addresses in their local diocese off dusty selves, and tapping the data from them out into primitive Excel sheets: of course, no one can turn to Google or Wikipedia. Archives of clippings that might prove or disprove a claim have to be dug up out of drawers too, sometimes with major repercussions. More worryingly, it is easy to come away from the film realising just how easy it was for the criminals and their institutions to bury these crimes in an age before rapid digital connectivity, where smartphones and search engines have arguably more empowered those at risk. The film’s attention to these details makes the achievement of the team all the more interesting and resonant, though that is not to suggest modern reporters are lazy.
McCarthy’s film also gets two other important aspects right. Firstly, it presumably would have been easy for the screenwriters (Josh Singer along with McCarthy) to take some kind of liberties with the dynamics of the newspaper and create familiar scenes of nervy editors shouting and shutting down their ‘righteous asshole’ type journalists. Spotlight mostly avoids that, when clashes occur in the Globe, they are always well laid out, the stakes made clear, and the higher-ups usually seem to have a fair explanation for hesitating in letting the Spotlight underlings surge ahead. There are few identifiable archetypes: Baron actually, played in very low key mode by Shrieber, is viewed as a cost-cutter brought in to work the paper down to the bottom line, but turns out to be the kickstarter of the entire investigation. Brash senior figure Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, good at this kind of thing) comes off initially as cynical about both the credulity of the first highly-strung abuse victims the team encounter, and of the likelihood of the Church simply letting this go without a fight, but mostly he and Baron say ‘go ahead’ rather than hold fire at every step. The need for stories to be backed up is reiterated again and again, a Globe mantra of professional care that seems hard to quibble with. The power of the Church to litigate and summon widespread political support is made frighteningly clear to give context to any moment of hesitation. The paper does not have limitless resources to mop up errors.
Secondly, McCarthy gives over a large degree of screen time to the victims, even though the journalists remain the film’s focus, and the scenes where the Spotlight team have to hear their recollection are tastefully handled; though gruesome details are not shied away from. Each has a different story, but some details become worryingly common across the cases: many of the abused were from tough neighbourhoods with struggling parents, and others were in the closet over their sexuality. It therefore becomes clear, the deeper the investigation runs, that class and sexuality were used as weapons by the abusers coming in the guise of the cloth: this was therefore predation, not ‘a moment of weakness’ or some kind of insanity by a few bad apples. The abusive priests themselves who did so much damage to these people are mostly kept in the distance, but a scene in which reporter Pfeiffer decides to interview one of the suspected clergy instead of a victim results in one of the film’s most shocking moments, as the priests without hesitation confesses to having sex with the said young person, his defence, delivered with a smile, is that ‘there was never any enjoyment’. Giving context to the mindset that can offer such a bizarre justification of criminality is the never-seen Richard Sipe (voiced by Richard Jenkins), who only communicates with the Spotlight team via conference call and who holds the unusual status of being both a priest and a psychotherapist. Sipe’s data on the likely offender rate in the clergy shocks the team in disbelief…until they of course realise he is spookily accurate.
Spotlight isn’t flawless: those wanting a bit more flourish might wish for a little more colour in the performances: the ensemble cast are fine, but everyone is arguably in ‘earnest’ mode (though to be fair, how else could you play it given the subject matter). At times characters seem to be delivering homilies rather than naturalistic dialogue: Stanley Tucci’s brash but crusading pro-bono lawyer for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian, gets a good chunk of these kind of lines. But by and large, McCarthy and his filmmaking team deserve all the praise that has been flowing their way since this film started burning up the festival circuit. The Spotlight film crew seem to have adopted the best practices of the actual team they are dramatising: get the facts, assemble them well, and go tell a great story.