I’ve been blogging for three years now (well, in terms of this blog, anyway), and one thing I have tried to be more and more conscious of as the years have passed is my use of hyperbole. The early reviews on here are often not very polished – not that they’re buffed, impeccable shining beacons of critical light these days, I hasten to add – and they’re full of terms like ‘incredible cinematography’, when what I probably should have written at the time is the cinematography is ‘impressive’ or ‘good’, before offering a reason as to why it’s ‘impressive’ or ‘good’. I mean, has anyone really seen cinematography so extraordinary that they actually consider it to be impossible? (Discounting those who first sat through The Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, anyway, and yes, I know the word has taken on a different meaning today.) The way in which I discuss cinematography (or should discuss it, or try to discuss it) is just an example. The point is I’ve learned that it’s good to leave some space for the few movies that occasionally come along and almost do blow you away; and before I continue I should point out that’s not the case for Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight – I was still sitting in the same seat at the end of the film, as opposed to being flung backwards through a solid wall by the sheer force of its brilliance – but I expect it’s as near as anything’s going to come to doing so during this awards season. (What a truly fucking awful phrase, by the way; I hate the fact that ‘awards season’ has become so commonplace, because – and with apologies in advance to those of you who do enjoy the ceremonies and the fuss – it’s just cementing the existence of an elongated, jumped-up, self-important, congratulatory onslaught of unnecessary competitive bullshit anyway, and that’s before we get on to the fact that none of the ceremonies are even remotely representative of all the great cinema that is released each year; as of this moment I’m stopping discussing who will win what any further and will be reverting to the more traditional ‘winter’ to describe this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. At least until I forget, anyway. If I contradict this in the future, and I almost certainly will, then them’s the breaks.)
Uh. OK. Where was I? The flipside of trying to tone down the praise (or the outright hatred) in favour of something that at least approaches measured coverage – even if I do sometimes veer off piste – is that a) I worry that it sometimes seems as if I simply don’t care about movies, when I actually love the whole experience, good and bad and everything in-between; and b) sometimes I’ll write an ambivalent or less-positive review than usual for a fairly decent film and it can seem as if I actively dislike the movie in question. Two cases in point: in the last week or so I’ve written reviews for The Big Short and The Salvation. I enjoyed both films, but reading those pieces back I can see why people might think that I didn’t, given that I had problems with both and banged on about said problems in the reviews and, rather unnecessarily, in my replies to comments underneath them. I thought both were good movies, for a number of reasons, but looking back I’m glad I held something back, because I subsequently watched Medium Cool and Spotlight, two works that in my opinion are far superior. It really is as simple as that.
I’m rambling, but bear with me, I think I need to ramble. Y’see Spotlight is the new release I’ve enjoyed the most since I watched Eden last year, which ended up being my favourite film of 2015, so I’m glad I’ve left some space in which to both ‘place’ and ‘praise’ McCarthy’s exhaustive investigation of investigative journalism. (Eden, incidentally, only made a couple of people’s ‘best of 2015’ lists, which perversely kind of makes me happy. And yes, I appreciate that it’s ridiculous to denounce the idea of awards ceremonies that are full of ‘best this’, ‘best that’ and ‘best whatever’ in one paragraph only to draw attention to your own unnecessary list of ranked favourite films from the previous year the next, but what can I say? I did warn you that I’d contradict myself before too long, and that was only two paragraphs ago. But let’s leave it at that and get back to Spotlight, shall we? I should at least try and salvage some sort of review out of all this waffle.)
There are several things that McCarthy gets right in this film. Most obviously he directs the cast impressively. I’m not just talking about the stars: Keaton, Ruffalo, Schreiber, Slattery, Tucci, McAdams and d’Arcy James. Those are the core members of the cast, most of whom play employees of the Boston Globe and in particular its ‘Spotlight’ team, which uncovered the scale of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the city, and the extent to which the Boston Archdiocese attempted to cover it up, in 2001 and 2002. They’ve all had lots of praise elsewhere, so I won’t bother going into any detail, but there are no weak or average performances undermining anyone else’s good work, which is a rare old thing in itself. What’s impressive is that McCarthy manages to get really good performances from everyone with a significant part in his movie: the actors who briefly appear for a scene in which they have to convince you that their characters were abused as children and are still dealing with the effects of that abuse decades later, for example, or those playing Catholic bigwigs and complicit others. Some of these appear in the very best scenes of the film, in my opinion, so let’s name a few: Neal Huff, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou and Michael Cyril Creighton all do fine work here, even if it is just for a couple of minutes.
This paean to thorough investigative journalism may be set just fifteen years ago, but it seems even more distant from the present day because of the way most daily newspapers have shifted focus to their online insta-presences in the interim. Long-form, expensive and prestigious (Pulitzer Prize-winning) reportage is not as widespread today as it once was, of course, and commercial concerns have forced many papers to drop long-held standards in order to increase the flow of online traffic. I couldn’t say what the Boston Globe is like today, as I’m not a reader, but the English papers I do read or have greater awareness of have changed rapidly during the new millennium. When the story finally breaks in this film we see the familiar sight of the presses rolling, and one wonders how a montage of such pleasing images can credibly be repeated in any future study of newspaper journalism set any time after, say, 2005. A shame, if you ask me. There is a keen sense of the time-a-changing here, but McCarthy – who took on similar subject matter as an actor during the fifth season of The Wire – never suggests we’re witnessing a carefree golden age of newspapers and journalism, despite print still being king during his film; whatever the outcome of the investigation we all know that the Spotlight team’s days are numbered. As someone who works in the publishing industry, and has seen such change and the effects of it first-hand, there’s something extra-pleasing about Schreiber’s Editor Marty Baron: he quietly gets on with the business of being a noble and effective buffer, and successfully keeps the pressure from above off the reporters, even if he is acutely aware that the workers underneath him are going to have to adapt to survive. (It’s not a coincidence that Spotlight opens with the retirement of an employee who has the kind of friendly send-off that would only be afforded someone who has been around for years. Lay-offs and goodbyes loom.)
The pace of Spotlight is slow, the story is eked out methodically, which is entirely apt for a movie about such a long-term, detailed inquiry. The detail allows the viewer to understand how the case against the Catholic Church was built, and how the team’s knowledge of the extent of the problem in Boston grew over time before the exposé was made public. There’s a ‘tip of the iceberg’ feel to the early exchanges and phone calls, when information is being gathered and sources are being interviewed. The most dogged and determined newshound seems to be Mark Ruffalo’s lead reporter Mike Rezendes, though that might simply be because McCarthy foregrounds him more than the two other main Spotlight journalists, played by Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. Initially their combined reporting revolves around just one paedophile priest, John Geoghan, but later estimates are given that suggest around 90 priests operating in the Boston area are actively abusing children, or have abused them in the recent past. The reporters are off chasing individual leads and trying to uncover buried documents, so it’s really Michael Keaton’s ‘Robby’ Robinson, the team’s editor, who discovers the extent of the problem in Boston. As it transpires the figure of 90, though quite astounding, may be too conservative; when the first article is published, at the end of the film, the team of journalists are inundated with phone calls from victims of abuse who had kept a long silence, and it’s a good move by McCarthy to draw things to a close just as the floodgates have been opened. During the end credits it’s revealed that the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team published over 600 articles about the abuse and the cover-up. We see a damning list of other towns and cities across America in which similar cases have come to light, and this is followed by a list of cities around the world where even more incidents have been reported. Even today the effects of this remarkable piece of journalistic work are still being felt: more people have come forward to report abuse in the wake of Spotlight‘s release in cinemas.
McCarthy’s screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, has been celebrated for its damning indictment of a number of complicit parties: religious, political, scholastic, legal and other institutions are all caught up in the cover-up. Even the Boston Globe does not escape criticism, despite the film being a celebration of its work, though naturally the focus is largely on the disgraceful actions of the Catholic Church at the time. Its presence is felt throughout the city: churches loom in the background of a number of shots, standing next to houses in working class districts or beside other temples of wealth slap bang in the middle of the business district. At one point a victim of abuse points out the proximity of a church to a nearby children’s playground. McCarthy gradually reveals the risk involved in taking on the Church, detailing the way it bought a certain degree of high-level protection in Boston, and relying on our own knowledge that within that city above all others in the USA it had the money and the influence to make things hard for the local newspaper and its reporting team; as such the film serves to remind us just how important it is that our news sources remain impartial and stay strong in the face of severe pressure from powerful insitutions. These real-life reporters were fearless, though the people who came forward that were subjected to abuse are obviously the truly courageous parties to this story. One of the reasons I think Spotlight is a very good film – arguably a great film, if I’m to allow myself a moment of hyperbole – is that it sensitively approaches the suffering of these victims while also doing justice to those who pieced together and broke the story. It doesn’t constantly demand your attention or attempt to wow you, unlike several other recent high-profile releases, but Spotlight is a gripping and well-acted procedural that will stand the test of time.
Directed by: Tom McCarthy.
Written by: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Jean Amoroso, Neal Huff, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou.
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi.
Editing: Tom McArdle.
Music: Howard Shore.
Running Time: 129 minutes.