When the film ends and the credits begin to roll, Spotlight does not leave you with a happy ending. The film is not an easy, comfortable watch. Ostensibly, an entire film of journalists and lawyers chatting does not immediately seem like one which would make anyone’s hair stand on end. However Spotlight manages to deliver a difficult and distressing real life story with an excellent mixture of subtlety and depth.
Tom McCarthy, the director, has been best known as an indie darling making generally low budget but critically acclaimed pieces till now. Spotlight marks a shift with a twenty million dollar budget and an ensemble cast made up of stars, though it took some time to get here. The screenplay originally appeared on the Blacklist, the annual Hollywood list of the best unmade scripts, in 2013 and was eventually picked up for development. With the budget and the story McCarthy was able to attract the likes of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Rachel McAdams and John Slattery to form the key actors for the true events drama.
The story begins in 2001 at the Boston Globe newspaper with the arrival of a new editor, the ambitious Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). There he asks the spotlight team, led by Michael Keaton’s Walter Robinson, to investigate reports that the Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston knew about a paedophile priest for decades but did nothing to stop him. The spotlight team, who work for months, sometimes a year on a single story begin to investigate. So kicks off the string of cases and victims that the team begin to discover.
Whilst there is always a sense of subtlety and story above spectacle, McCarthy has managed to create a surprisingly thrilling film. Discoveries of more victims and more priests abusing children fill you with a very literal sense of dread and the feeling there is some conspiracy at work is present in every interaction between the journalists and the various lawyers and church officials they interview. Each member of the cast stands out in their own way but none of them are larger than life. These are very normal people and that’s what makes them compelling as characters. Their disgust and reaction to what they uncover is exactly what the audience feels as the film progresses.
Mark Ruffalo does an excellent job in particular, something that has earned him, along with Rachel McAdams, an Oscar nomination. His character is awkward, hands-always-in-pockets, body always leant forward, a slight stutter when he asks questions. It’s out of character for Ruffalo but works brilliantly. His character, Rezendes, becomes something of a favourite amongst all the others. Similarly Schreiber’s role as globe editor Marty Baron would seem unsuited to the characters he usually plays but Schreiber pulls it off superbly. Stanley Tucci meanwhile steals every scene he’s in.
For all its human drama however it’s the city of Boston that becomes the main character, at once protagonist and antagonist. Boston is built up as a secretive, exclusive and inward looking town. Baron’s Jewish background isolates him from the town and there is a hinted suggestion from one Catholic charity official that his Jewishness is what is motivating his desire for the story. Stanley Tucci’s character’s background is Armenian whilst Ruffalo’s characters is Portuguese and both are clearly more isolated than their fellow Irish Catholic colleagues.
The sense of isolation and secrecy as a motif is repeated throughout the film. Cardinal Law warns Baron that Boston is still really a small town. McCarthy frames large group shots whilst often leaving someone out of frame on their own. It all feeds beautifully into the wider answer to the film’s question-how could something like this have gone on? The answer is very much that it did because it was secret, closed off, isolated and not discussed.
Throughout its running time, Spotlight recalls elements of All The President’s Men another classic film which has journalists as the heroes, uncovering a large conspiracy. Just as All The President’s Men reflected and explained American’s suspicion and loss of faith in politicians in the post-Watergate world, Spotlight helps to explain a wider loss of faith and decline of religion, especially the Catholic Church now. The church has never been viewed the same after the various abuse scandals and ‘Spotlight’ reflects this in a poignant and gentle way. Rachel McAdams’ character often goes to church with her grandmother but finds she can’t once she knows what goes on. Brian d’Arcy James’ character finds out there is a treatment centre for paedophile priests a block away from his house and worries about his kids. The film never fails to show the real human impact of its true story and the real, ordinary people it affected.
The term ‘Oscar bait’ has been chucked around a lot with this film. It implies a film that has been made purely to bag academy awards and any other awards season trophies it can get its hands on. On the surface Spotlight seems to fit this category nicely. A hot button topic, an all star cast, a director known for his independent, critical darlings and a release date, of course, to coincide with awards season. However it should be judged on its merits alone. The Oscars it has been nominated for, including best picture, screenplay, director and supporting actor and actress for Ruffalo and McAdams are more than well earned. It’s been tipped as a favourite for best picture, though The Big Short is gaining popularity betting wise. Whether or not it wins, it is certainly one of the best films of 2015. Beyond this however, and more importantly, I believe people will be watching ‘Spotlight’ for many years to come, unlike most Oscar bait throwaways. Not just because of the importance of the story it is telling, but because of how well it does tell that story. This is an excellent film, at times depressing, sometimes thrilling, often shocking, but most importantly a real story told in a way that informs and grips you, whilst never getting above the real, tragic story.