Directed by Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci.
This film was absolutely on my ‘to watch’ list after witnessing it’s success during the 2016/17 awards season. However, I never got round to it and I can’t help but feel I have robbed myself of such an experience! I stumbled across it on Netflix, and what a fall it was. I use the word experience because it is just that, an experience. Your emotional spectrum will be exhausted and your mind absolutely blown.
I knew the general focus of the film but I wasn’t prepared for what was about to unravel. The story focuses on The Boston Globe’s in-depth investigation team in 2001, known as Spotlight, who are looking for a focus for their next project. At the suggestion of new Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), they embark on an investigation into the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals and reveal the horrifying scope of the cover-up.
Firstly, narrative and truth aside, the filmmaking and storytelling is phenomenal. Just a heads up – put your damn phone down. You must listen to every ounce of dialogue and conversation to ensure you don’t lose track. Every element of script is important, but so simple and transparent in it’s delivery. Generally films based on true stories are just that, ‘based on’. McCarthy however has given the film such realism and structure with its simplicity that it’s hard to believe from an audience’s point of view that this wasn’t scarily accurate.
McCarthy’s great strength is in his refusal to pander to us, or to default to easy answers; the correct reaction to the team’s work is horror rather than jubilation. And while admirable, the reporters take some blame upon themselves. This crisis, after all, developed under their noses and it took an outsider (Tucci) to force them to examine it.
I talk about simplicity and you’ll know what I mean when you watch it. Given the sensitive nature of the story, special effects, fancy camera angles and quirky editing techniques are totally absent. Cinematography is raw and basic and it works. With it being a film hoping to make profit, most scriptwriters need to throw in a few twists and turns just to give it a bit of substance so the audience don’t lose interest. Not this film though. The story simply tells itself and it’s absolutely enough.
With scriptwriters having no need to ‘beef up’ the story, maybe to get the film noticed during exhibition and distribution phase it needed to include a well-known cast. As we know, popular movies usually have a lead, supporting (but well established) actors and actresses and maybe a villain or an obstacle in some form. Spotlight however, shatters yet more stereotypes. We have a supremely talented cast here, who subsume ego to tell a story of a group achievement. Characters each have their moment to shine, all with superb yet subtle talent. We see famous faces, but for me it felt totally irrelevant. For once it didn’t feel like it was about performance or popularity. You felt the most important thing to this group of actors was telling the story and seeking justice for victims. Despite the lack of conspicuous melodrama, this film communicates its high stakes so effectively that even photocopying seems unbearably tense.
That being said, from a personal point of view I absolutely have to talk about Mark Ruffalo. This is a guy who didn’t really make it until he was nearly 40, but has been penning his name to some incredible projects ever since. His performance in Spotlight is no exception, with him bringing me to tears at the very height of the film. The team are on the cusp of something bigger than they could ever have imagined, and Ruffalo takes centre stage in a very emotive monologue. It’s honest, believable and relatable.
Now, I guess it’s fair to say what the team uncover is truly shocking and appalling. As a viewer, you experience this with the Spotlight team. Given the primacy of the Church in Boston and the largely Catholic populace, the team are sceptical both of the idea that there was a cover-up and the financial wisdom in reporting it. Even the Editor who instructed the project had no idea what it was to become, and I imagine shaped their lives forever. The story was snowballing, with people and documents coming forward from every direction – too much for a 4-person team. We see this transpire by learning briefly Ruffalo’s character was having marital problems, Keaton’s character was struggling with friendships, James’ character was struggling to come to terms with living on the same street as a ‘rehab centre’, and McAdam’s character was battling with writing the story and her own Grandmother’s faith. Ultimately though, the team were committed to uncovering the truth and bringing those involved to justice.
I came away with more questions than answers, but it made clear some questionable human behaviour and choices in life. Unfortunately even today, we hear so many abuse stories on the news and how many (not all) of the perpetrators are or were in a position of trust when they committed the crimes. It begs the question; do they put themselves into these positions because it comes with an element of protection from their employers or organisations? Furthermore, is there an argument to suggest you are just as guilty as the offender if you knew something and did nothing about it, or went to lengths to protect them? Spotlight investigates just this. Not only do we learn about the scandal itself, but also you learn a lot about people’s priorities and values at the time, and what they considered important to themselves, Boston and beyond.
It’s a story of unglamorous legwork rather than revelation. The drama here comes from the detail, and the reporters’ slow realisation that their investigation could change the world far beyond Boston’s city limits. The Church’s power is revealed as smoke, mirrors and an unwarranted sense of deference, with journalism at its best proving its worth.
The tone is led by its characters, moving from scepticism to revelation and the uncomfortable sense that we should all feel guilty for ignoring the secrets too hard to acknowledge.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you can find it on Netflix. It’s 100% worth a watch.