Director Tom McCarthy’s riveting, slow-burning, scalpel-precise procedural drama about a crack team of gumshoe journos from The Boston Globe who broke local, interstate and ultimately international stories about systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church contains the kinds of scenes one would expect in a Hollywood film exploring this sort of subject matter.
There are moments when characters desperately hail cabs, run up flights of stairs clutching wads of paper and meet surreptitiously with informants in cloak-and-dagger situations. At one point Mark Ruffalo literally hollers to his boss “it could have been any one of us!” The problem, if one ought to phrase it that way, in this awfully good and awfully powerful film is that these moments resonate not with tinsel town style stereotypes but deeply unsettling authenticity.
Spotlight has been nominated for six Academy Awards. Like fellow Best Picture nominee The Big Short the story doesn’t have a protagonist: it is very much a team-oriented affair, with overarching perspective rather than a single person-driven narrative.
Like a lot of procedural dramas it is told in a largely formalist way, with lots of mid-shots and a resistance to switch tone or mood. Consistency is apparent in virtually all production elements, from measured plot and performances to editing and cinematography executed with an underpinning ethos that (at least for this story) the best kinds are those that go largely unnoticed.
You could call Spotlight a slow burn but it is engrossing from the start. The title refers to the name of a team who sink their teeth into long form investigations. As Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) explains, they take a couple of months to decide on a story then up to a year to investigate and write it. The film is set around the turn of the century, with references to 9/11 looming in public consciousness.
The journalists – who include Michael Rezenders (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – are not depicted with haloes over heads, and there is a recurring criticism they should have covered the story earlier. They are developed as results-driven workaholics who lock-jawed onto a case that, like the proverbial onion, stinks the more they peel it.
The Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) reads a small column in the paper about a paedophile priest and asks the team to investigate, aware that 53% of his subscriber base are Catholic. Looking into an ongoing cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese, the Spotlight crew are shocked to discover their search needs to widen to over a dozen offenders. Jaws drop to the floor when they realise that number is probably closer to 90.
An early moment comprising three interviews with victims conducted by three different reporters demonstrates how good the screenplay (by McCarthy and Josh Singer, who contributed to episodes of Law & Order and The West Wing) is at painting even small, virtually single scene characters with true-to-life strokes. The first is angry but his anger does not define him; the second is gay but his sexuality does not define him; the third is a junkie but his drug use does not define him. All will linger in your memory.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, whose work shooting 2011’s The Grey was exemplary, regularly transitions focus in single shots from foreground to background, which is about as flashy as the palette gets. McCarthy pushes story, character and dialogue to the fore, extracting fine performances (Keaton especially is irresistible as a journalist with a bad cop twist) and cautiously integrating composer Howard Shore’s score.
There are two kinds of sound in cinema: diegetic (what the audience and the characters hear) and non-diegetic (what only the audience hears). Spotlight is largely comprised of the former; Shore’s work is so light-on you barely notice it.
The film is immaculately controlled: a work of restraint that nevertheless has a real kick to it. I’ll eat my hat if there’s been a better newspaper film since 1976’s All the President’s Men. If that classic ode to the powers of a free press carried a cautionary message about politics, this one perhaps reminds us that politics comes in many forms and stems from many places.
When the drama occasionally spills over into moments that are conventionally escalatory – like characters bolting to get to places before they close, or shaking down malefactors – they feel almost as genuine as the moments they spend bunkered behind desks. That’s no small achievement.