Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
It is tough for me to review a film like Spotlight because, as I look back at it, I’m forced to ask myself whether my feelings towards it were inspired by its subject matter or by the film itself. When a film tackles a controversial subject of this importance it can be tricky to work out whether you really do like the film or if you only think you like it because you feel like you are supposed to. There is no doubt that Spotlight has an important story to tell, the question is whether or not it stands out as a film. When I compared it to some of the year’s other releases I realised that Spotlight is not actually that remarkable in terms of filmmaking. It doesn’t have the energy of Steve Jobs, the creativity of The Big Short or the atmosphere of Bridge of Spies. And yet I got a stronger reaction from watching Spotlight than I did from any of those three films. I think this has less to do with the subject matter though and more to do with the story, characters and dialogue.
The film is set in 2001 and tells the true story of the reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. The head of the Spotlight team conducting the investigation is Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a veteran reporter on friendly terms with some of the most influential Catholics in Boston. The members of his team include Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all of whom are deeply affected by this story for their own personal reasons. Overlooking this investigation is the new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and long-time Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Between them the Spotlight team discover that the instances of child molestation carried out by Catholic priests extends far beyond a few bad apples and start to suspect that the men at the very top could very well be aware of what’s happening and are even enabling it.
Although the directing in this film is not particularly creative or innovative (and certainly not worthy of an Oscar nomination), I think that Spotlight is a showcase of how great writing can make a great film. The construction of the film’s narrative is so methodical and intricate that there isn’t a single faulty step in its telling. Every scene and every conversation that takes place is employed to progress the story and does so fluidly and captivatingly. Even though the subject of the film is complex and challenging, the story itself is straightforward and upfront. The film gets straight to the point and goes exactly where it needs to go. The viewer is able to become invested through the characters as they uncover this conspiracy piece by piece and are all personally affected by what they discover. There is a directness and matter-of-factness to the film’s approach that makes it all feel downright and true and therefore honest. The drama is never overplayed and is never exaggerated. Through smooth pacing and subtlety the film allows its story to play out naturally and every moment of drama that does occur is completely earned.
Spotlight could also very well have the best ensemble of the year. There isn’t an individual that I can single out because the strength of their performances is that they work best as a collective. If I had to pick out a favourite though it would probably have to be Stanley Tucci as the tired yet dedicated lawyer who has seen too many injustices and empty promises in his time. Each character in this film is fully rounded and are all challenged by what they uncover. Robinson is a born-and-bred Boston man who discovers that he didn’t know his city or its people as well as he thought he did. Rezendes is horrified by the corruption of an institution he believed to be good and just. Pfeiffer is deeply affected by the trauma of the victims and the impenitence of the offenders. Carroll is a family man who cannot help but wonder whether he can keep his own children safe. The actors play their roles so authentically and candidly that they completely disappear into their characters.
It is tough to set aside a story’s social relevance and to assess a film like this purely as a film. I know that the film had a profound affect on me. The question is whether this is because I was already worked up by the film’s notorious subject matter or because I was moved by the film’s story. On reflection I think I have to side with the film. As I played it over in my head there was one particular sequence that stuck with me which involved a children’s choir singing ‘Silent Night’. After everything that had come before, that particular scene struck me like a hammer. After all of the corruption, tragedy and depravity that had been uncovered, the film chose to drive it all home by contrasting it with an image of what had been lost in the middle of it all. It was an image of such heartbreaking innocence that I couldn’t help but be moved. Spotlight is such a slow-burner that it captivates you without you even realising it. It is a marvellously written film with an excellent ensemble and an emotional and powerful payoff that is well worth the wait.