If not quite a dying profession, journalism is certainly one under threat. Declining print circulation and the move to a format that seems mighty hard to commercialise have seen cutbacks and closings across the board. The first to go are often those teams focussing on the big investigative pieces that cost so much in time and money. Thomas McCarthy’s fifth feature shows these people at work in a gripping procedural that brings his warmly observant style to a much larger canvas, banishing the ghost of his last film, the aberration that is The Cobbler, at the same time.
We’ve lived with Catholic Church child abuse scandals for so long now. Even before it became fact, there were enough mutterings and dark jokes about entrusting kids to priests to know something was up. Back in 2001 the Spotlight team, an investigative division of the Boston Globe, broke a story proving that abuse in the Boston area happened not only on a wide scale, but was also known about, and swept under the carpet by the Church hierarchy.
More so than any film of recent times, Spotlight shows what an investigation of this size and complexity requires. McCarthy’s screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, has to marshal a large cast of characters, and an even larger stash of information, managing both with dizzying skill. Starting with the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who pushes the story, and as an unmarried Jew from out of town, is not so easily swayed by the local Church, the core players begin to take shape.
Spotlight is led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) who has Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) working directly for him. The spider’s web of interested parties expands outwards from here encompassing Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudrup’s lawyers followed by priests, educators, judges and the victims. No one is superfluous, each person given the time needed to play their part.
Using people as its moving pieces, the screenplay builds the story layer by layer until a complicated picture of lies, secret pay-outs, negligence and a fog of silence emerges. Starting initially with one priest, that figure balloons upwards, and the complicity of the local Cardinal himself looks more and more likely. As the truth unravels, what McCarthy and Singer do particularly well is the reinforcement of key points. The vulnerability of the victims, and the culture of silence and respect that allows priests to go unchallenged comes under the microscope. To Keaton and co, it increasingly seems that everyone knew but them. Wherever they go, obstacles have already been erected. Excuses are formulated quickly. Dignitaries point to the good the Church does, old friends encourage them not to be swayed by outside influence.
McCarthy, a strong director of actors, draws fine performances from everyone, none more so than Ruffalo. He’s like a dog with a bone, hunched over papers or scuttling after officials. His excitement when he gains new information, or frustration when he’s pushed away is palpable and he does as much as anyone to create the tingling sense of dread that hangs around the corner. It’s never clear what’s about to be uncovered, or if something’s going to block their path.
Only in a couple of places does McCarthy dumb it down for easy consumption. Plans have to be argued out when the next course of action should be clear, and one revelation around Church directories seems so blindingly obvious it’s a surprise when it turns out no one had realised. These clumsy concessions to exposition barely figure in the greater scheme of things, and leave little impression by the end. Instead, it’s a beautifully controlled scene cross-cutting between two interviews with victims, or a startling conversation with a frank priest that linger.
Spotlight shows procedural drama doesn’t have to lose its human element, producing an exceptional film that excels across the board. Never a showy director, McCarthy uses screenplay and actors to build his case. By the end it’s compelling and infuriating in turn. How could this have happened and why did no one stop it? The question is posed, answered, and re-opened again over the closing credits. There are no easy answers, only hard truths.
Director: Tom McCarthy (as Thomas McCarthy)
Writers: Tom McCarthy (screenplay) (as Thomas McCarthy) , Josh Singer (screenplay)
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci
Runtime: 128 min