A film about the uncovering of child abuse by the Catholic Church could be a very brutal slog through the unfathomable cruelty and depravity humans are capable of. It could also fall into the trap of heavy-handed finger wagging at the Church in a way that nullifies any dramatic interest. In focusing on the journalists who first uncovered the scandal, Spotlight manages to avoid such pitfalls and craft a brilliant and subtle drama about holding those in power to account using the strength of old fashioned investigative journalism.
July 2001. Incoming editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), asks why there hasn’t been a thorough investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by priests by the paper. He tasks Walter ‘Robbie’ Robertson (Michael Keaton) and his investigative unit Spotlight, to dig deeper to find the truth about what the hierarchy of the clergy knew about sexual abuse and what they did to cover it up.
Tom McCarthy has had a bumpy few years with his never released Game of Thrones pilot being reshot, the critically lambasted, little seen Adam Sandler film The Cobbler and the likeable if slight Win-Win proving the lone bright spot. Spotlight sees a return to the form that saw him deliver the one-two punch of stunning dramas The Station Agent and The Visitor. Co-writing with Josh Singer, McCarthy returns to the strengths of his earlier work and manages to make an engrossing and clear eyed portrait of how a group of hard working journalists worked to bring the truth to the world.
In eschewing a sensationalist approach to difficult material, McCarthy allows the unadorned truths to speak for themselves. Whether it’s the measures that the Catholic Church utilised to move abusers to different parishes, to the revelation by ex-priest psychologist Richard Sipe (an off-screen, uncredited Richard Jenkins) that 6% of priests act out sexually towards children, the testimony that the abuse survivors give to the Spotlight team to the jaw dropping justification one abuser gives to Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) when she confronts him, the film gains greater impact by sticking to a ‘just the facts ma’am’ approach.
What is especially laudable is how Spotlight doesn’t go for easy answers. Whether it is the Church’s fixer Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle) leaning on Robbie at a bar, the hint of anti-Semitism in the Boston establishment’s response to Baron’s interest in the case or the Boston Globe’s lack of investigation into claims of sexual misconduct, Spotlight rightly asserts that Garabedian states “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them” In an era where stories of abuse by the likes of Jimmy Saville have shown how a combination of cover-ups and apathy allowed abuse to carry on for decades, that reminder is even more relevant.
The cast are uniformly excellent from Schrieber’s slightly aloof but incredibly switched on Baron, to McAdams’ slightly conflicted, empathetic Pfeiffer, Brian d’Arcy James as the concerned Matt Carroll, John Slattery as the sceptical Ben Bradley Jr, Neal Huff as the spiky abuse survivor Phil Saviano, Billy Crudup as the seemingly sleazy attorney Eric Macleish and the always welcome Stanley Tucci as victims’ lawyer Mitchell Garabedian. It seems wrong to praise anyone in such a well-balanced ensemble in particular but Keaton excels in showing the affable Robbie and switching to his hard-nosed journalistic instincts and Ruffalo as the dogged, impassioned Mark Rezendes is equally brilliant in his quieter moments or in moments of righteous indignation.
Spotlight has drawn comparisons to classics All the President’s Men and The Insider, being a similarly excellent dramatic rendering of investigative journalists uncovering scandals that rocked the world. The film can proudly stand alongside its heavyweight forebears. As the film’s closing moments show, it may even surpass them, as the work the Spotlight team did allowed more survivors of abuse to come forward. Spotlight similarly gives voice to those who were for so long ignored and that is to its eternal credit.
Spotlight was released in UK cinemas on 29th January 2016.