When I was growing up, I listed my two ultimate career ambitions as film director and journalist. Whilst I may have, in some sort of miniscule way combined the two through hobbies such as this site and the various writing outlets over the years I haven’t exactly broken a major, earthshattering coup, a historical expose that has shaken a venerable institution to its very foundations. One of my favorite films within the all-time top fifty is All The Presidents Men, the cinema dictionary definition of the diligent crusading journalists slowly unmasking a complex conspiracy, striking a blow against the forces of oppression with the constitutional fury of 10,000,000 righteous Washington Post subscribers. I’m in good company as David Fincher also cites this as one of his favourite ever films, and you can see that same, cool methodological instinct in work such as Zodiac and its commitment to procedural pathway, the slow accretion of data and documents, deposition and testimony, which together can assemble a conspiracy of horrific proportions. Broadly speaking this is the approach of Spotlight, the multi-award nominated story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Clergy cover-up of sexual abuse which was slowly brought to light in the early years of the century. As a fellow scribe I’m morally obligated to mention that the director of Spotlight is Tom McCarthy, the actor who played the corrupt and hungry new street-beat recruit of the Baltimore Sun in Season 5 of The Wire, his cheap ambition and rape of journalistic ethics standing in diametric opposition to this sober, careful and incrementally infuriating illumination of one of the great scandals of our time. The film is a masterful work of taut restraint and modest ambition, with a total commitment to the story, to the facts of the case, supported by a portfolio of performances which are uniformly excellent, right across the editorial board.
While the film has been universally showered with award nominations that doesn’t mean it hasn’t generation some antipathy, the mild criticisms emanating from a perceived lack of cinematic virtue, either through its aesthetics – the visual appeal and construction of the film, nor in temperature – the emotions of the main players and victims measured against the volatile nature of the incendiary crimes. These qualities are mirrored with the arrival of a new editor at Boston’s longest newspaper, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) initially affects a rather withdrawn and cold demeanour, with one of his colleagues observing that as an unmarried, Jewish, baseball indifferent outsider he’s not likely to assimilate into the Catholic, proud family & sporting fanatic heritage of Boston. As the outcast Marty quietly becomes our surrogate avatar into the social and political texture of the city, as he meets and greets with his local editors Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), quietly assessing the papers circulation strengths and weaknesses, before being drawn into the social whirl of the organs financial benefactors and charitable partners. Robinson is the editor of the papers highly regarded investigative so called ‘Spotlight’ team, lavished with the valuable resources of time and foot soldiers in pursuing longer term, more obfuscated and complex stories. As the experienced chief and a Boston lifer has assembled a placid on the outside, Rottweiler on the inside tenacious team including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael MacAdams) and theatre actor Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll in one of his first movie roles. After reviewing a local lawyer’s terse allegations that a prominent Boston Cardinal knew of the systematic sexual abuse some of his subordinates were conducting he instructs the team to make some enquiries, displacing small pebbles which over a period of exhaustive months avalanche into a prize winning Pulitzer expose which is still reverberating around the world fifteen years later.
These grumbling barbs muttering of the subdued tempo, of the measured incremental pace and diluted emotional intensity are all accurate in comparison to most Hollywood drama, but they all seem to miss the crucial point that this is exactly the point, as the approach to story could be termed ‘anti-cinema’ if that’s not a pretentious oxymoron. McCarthy senses that dressing up such a horrendous conspiracy with billowing speeches, of fist thumping monologues or soaring tear stained montages of weeping victims cut against handcuffed clergy being pilloried through shrieking press mobs would a) be untruthful as such events never took place and b) counterproductive in terms of Spotlight’s ancillary story, of how the story was pieced together through sheer, determined, careful professionalism. The film has been designed and executed for adult consumption, simply letting the facts speak for themselves, allowing the audience to make their connections between names, events, legal obstacles and cultural pressures. This might result in a lack of any immediate, satisfying, dramatic ‘high’ but for the more discerning viewer the endgame is no less devastating, striking with the subdued velocity of a 900 page subpoena. Through this mechanism the film is a procedural which illustrates the realistic hard work of genuine journalism, of poring through volumes of court records and statistical periodicals, of hitting the bricks and knocking on doors for hours on end, of slowly, almost imperceptibly, putting a picture together from a myriad of elements and records which holistically puncture through to a blistering breakthrough. The script is also keen to communicate a sense of Boston the town, the fulcrum of the scandal, building an ambient sense of how the Church and its tendrils graze almost all the institutions of civic and social life.
It achieves this neutrality in an even handed and balanced fashion, not necessarily in any malignant and oppressive way, but in a slow accretion of scenes which position the church within every level of the community, from black-tie fundraisers to law-firm foyers, from school assemblies to blue collar barbecues. It’s a film of silences and absences, the silence visited upon the victims from the very same entities enshrined with their protection, arrayed against the absence of the usual Hollywood screenwriter testaments – character development, friction and conflict. None of the main characters are suffering a collapsing marriage or wrestling with a substance abuse problem, instead in a fidelity to realism we almost uniquely seem them working the case, with only occasional glimpses of their private lives and how the story may touch them and their families. At one stage one of the Spotlight crew discovers a church property where abusive priests are sequestered between placements is roughly one block away from him and his young family; in another McAdams sits with her penitent Grandmother who has attended mass every weekend of her life as she slowly digests the scale of the abuse, her quivering voice asking for a glass of water and she reads through her granddaughter’s devastating scoop. These brilliant, quietly modulated scenes build the scale and psychic depth of the scandal, expanding the story from the personal to the political.
The film boasts one of the strongest ensembles of recent memory whose contributions are universally excellent, while both Keaton and Ruffalo emerge as the main drivers of the investigation and consequently the moral nucleus of the film. As the squad leader and sniper of the Spotlight force they strategically assault the twin beachheads of the conspiracy, the former the political and civic establishment whom resist any embarrassing scandal soiling the city, the latter the victims and their legal counsel, a successful pincher movement which eventually pays revelatory dividends. Maybe there is one, just the one moment which cleaves to the mainstream screenwriting coda, with Ruffalo getting one powerful speech in the bowels of the newsroom which is already in heavy rotation at every award function show-reel, a cathartic release which the audience welcomes this deep into the investigation to remind them of the unholy context of the crimes. Among the support Liev Schreiber is just incredible, his quiet demeanour cloaking a laser-sharp mind, as is Stanley Tucci as the plaintiffs abrasive lawyer, initially hostile but slowly empathic of the Globe and its illuminating intentions. It bears furious repeat that the crux of the scandal is not a few bad apples, that serial and sustained
abuse rape has emanated over decades from an institution which harbors no more and no less sexual criminals than any other profession, if you’d believe their corporate propaganda – plumbers, architects, engineers or even journalists. Maybe those statistics stack up although one strand of investigation in the film seems to suggest otherwise. But the last time I checked the Journalists union, the engineers society or the plumbers associations didn’t actively suppress prosecutions of the crime of raping children, they didn’t protect them from the legislature and seek silent settlements of repeated and devastating incidents of the worst abuse imaginable on the most vulnerable victims.
No, what they did was displace the criminal child rapists to other parts of the parish, to other parts of the country, or indeed to other countries, so they could continue to rape children. That is why the entire organisation as far as I’m concerned is an noxious criminal entity, right up to the highest echelons in the Vatican whom we’ve learnt all knew of the abuse, and over decades have sought to suffocate any probe of their criminal conspiracy which is on a par with international organised crime. After Spotlight’s appropriately quiet and clever dramatic final character feint – one dramatic strand is assumed to go one way but it turns on a right angle to keep the audience unstable – the screen fades to black as the final text solemnly lists other communities where similar patterns of abuse and cover-ups have been illuminated. By my reckoning this list featured clusters from all over the world in the low hundreds. Hundreds. This is a brilliantly acted, perfectly pitched and dare I say it genuinely important film, perfectly married in style and substance to array a compelling story of our recent times which continues to fester. We can only hope that future generations may view Spotlight as less an expose of institutional failure on a cataclysmic scale than an artefact of print news media working at the peaks of its powers, occupying the highest plateau of noble intention as the fourth estate is slowly superseded by the fifth Maybe it’s a testament to some last pinprick of virtue in this twilight of media ethics, before the chase of the dwindling advertising dollar via attention deficit consumers incited click-bait journalism as the norm, the depressing and prevalent trend as we drift further into our digitally modulated century;