Spotlight review

Superb performances are at the heart of one of the Oscar frontrunners, Spotlight. Here's our review...

Films sometimes have odd ways of depicting how journalism works, either overestimating the glamour or underestimating the actual effort, depending on whether the representation is positive or negative. In real life, good journalists don’t make themselves the story, and so it goes in Spotlight.

You might not expect a more full and frank procedural approach from a film that’s been garlanded with awards nominations for the last few months, but you might expect it of director Tom McCarthy, who previously gave us Win Win and The Station Agent. For better or worse, his latest truly has no frills, instead zeroing in on the nitty-gritty of how a major true story was reported.

The Boston Globe is a local paper through and through – most of the newsroom staff, including editors Walter ‘Robby’ Robertson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) were born and raised in the area. The arrival of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) on the editorial team is welcomed, although several senior figures in the city, from priests to police officers, are suspicious of the outsider.

As it turns out, one of Marty’s very first moves is to assign Robby’s Spotlight team to look into an unreported tip that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law (Len Carlou) was aware of child abuse in the church and covered it up. Robby and his crack team of investigators – Mike Rezendes, (Mark Ruffalo) Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)- start by looking into the movement of priests around different parishes and discover a scandal that stretches even further than they feared.

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The scope of the scandal, and of the film itself, is tipped in a prelude that takes place in a police station in 1976. The details aren’t set out explicitly, but we learn that a bishop is talking to a boy and his mother in one interview room, as a lawyer arrives to speak to a priest in another and to make sure that the press won’t be involved. The young desk cop remarks that it’ll be hard to keep an arraignment out of the press, but the older cop doubts there’ll actually be one.

Spotlight is not a conspiracy thriller by any stretch of the imagination. The closest the film comes to action is in obtaining documents , tipped by lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to contain some crucial evidence, and that only counts for a character running up and down corridors and between floors in City Hall to try and clear the red tape in his way. It’s not a crime drama or a whodunnit either – we already know what has been done when we go in.

As the film has it, it’s not horrifying enough that children have been abused, but that a large amount of the predominantly Catholic infrastructure of Boston, from the authorities down to the more pious parishioners, have all turned a blind eye for so long too. The victims haven’t been able to come forward as a result of this air of complicity, which pits the Spotlight team against wilful ignorance and complicity. In one single line, Tucci’s prickly attorney comes closest to nailing the mortifying truth in a single line -“If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”

It would be easy (and perhaps less tactful) to make a more sensational film, but writers McCarthy and Josh Singer aren’t cloying for shock value. As this year’s Best Picture nominees go, this makes a perfect contrast with The Big Short, which dramatises the recent financial crisis with nothing short of highly articulate rage for the duration. On the other hand, Spotlight is almost blunt in its matter-of-fact appraisal of events.

As others have remarked, this definitely makes it the least cinematic of the Best Picture nominees for this year, which works both for and against it. It’s frankly refreshing to see a film at this time of year that doesn’t grandstand on its central issue, favouring natural performances over clippable melodrama, but on the downside, it makes for a rigid and sometimes televisual film. It’s not to use terms of well-acted and well-written drama about journalism, it never feels like it exceeds the storytelling bounds of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom.

Still, it is incredibly well acted. In taking this approach, the film feels designed as a performance piece and the ensemble is more than up to the task. Many of the film’s subtle tipping points are conveyed with no more than a change of expression, including one flabbergasting moment of silence during a conference call with a former priest (voiced by an uncredited Richard Jenkins). It’s as compelling a case as any in recent years for the Academy to create a Best Ensemble award, for films where the four main categories can’t cover all of the nuances that come with a collective effort.

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Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams are each nominated in the Supporting categories, deservedly so. Working with an accent that mercifully doesn’t get in his way, Ruffalo gives plenty of oomph to Rezendes’ righteous anger and integrity. McAdams, who has been so good in so many films before, makes the most of what might be the best female supporting role in this kind of film in many years – they don’t have Sacha consorting with Robby after hours or set her apart for her gender, as befits the overall pared-down approach. Sacha is a strong character, without the ‘female’ qualifier in the middle, and McAdams gets on with it magnificently.

Still, other cast members deserve recognition. For instance, it’s mind-boggling that Michael Keaton isn’t up for his second Oscar nomination in a row as Robby. He’s second-billed and so would probably have fit in the Supporting Actor camp, but he is the de facto protagonist. We meet him earliest, and as the senior member of the Spotlight team, he has the most investment in both the Globe and Boston, and thus discovers the most personal connection to the as yet unproven accusations. Keaton knocks it out of the park, fitting right in with the ensemble but connecting every time he appears.

Also in the mix, Tucci delivers an acerbic and anti-social turn as the reluctant source, delivering all of the most quietly devastating lines; Schreiber gives a more subtle performance than a crusading outsider might otherwise be allowed to be on film, as the smartest, but quietest person in any exchange; and Carlou glowers with the smug entitlement that comes from absolute corruption in his brief appearances. If you thought The Martian had this year’s best ensemble cast in the bag, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Spotlight is a film which never actually raises its voice (although the scene where Rezendes finally loses his rag is a belter), instead following the characters’ lead by methodically working through the story. Like Spotlight’s eventual feature, it feels worked through to hold up in posterity, rather than scandalise the audience.

It has little of the style of All The President’s Men or Zodiac, the cinematic touchstones to which it has been so often compared, but even as a three-star film about recent history, packed with five-star performances and aimed squarely at grown-ups, it will probably appreciate in value over time.

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4 out of 5