It can be hard to make investigative journalism look exciting. While the magazine world gets the luxurious high-rise offices and sexy, fashionable editors (in the movies, at least), your garden variety hack is typically an ordinary schlub decked in faded slacks and sporting the pasty complexion of someone who rarely gets out of the office. Their job is to scribble notes, make phone calls and stare blankly at a computer screen. Hardly the kind of stuff that puts bums on cinema seats.
Yet that’s exactly what director Tom McCarthy’s fascinating and utterly absorbing drama achieves. Engrossingly rigorous and fiercely determined, Spotlight is a salute to the importance of journalism in all its plain, unfussy glory.
And ‘unfussy’ is definitely the nom de jour where this film is concerned. Spotlight handles the shocking details of its story with grace and understatement whilst resisting the urge for melodrama or phony uplift. McCarthy, who co-writes with The Fifth Estate’s Josh Singer, treats us like grown-ups who are capable of being suitably appalled at the sickening truth behind the allegations it uncovers without being prompted by histrionics or stirring scores.
For the unfamiliar, the film chronicles The Boston Globe’s eponymous investigative unit, who, in 2001, are tasked with looking into allegations of child sexual abuse among Catholic priests. Led by respected editor ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton), reporters Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (James) and Sacha Pfieffer (McAdams) are drawn to the case of John Geoghan, a defrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. But as the team digs deeper, they uncover more and more victims and a hidden cachet of evidence that points to a systemic cover up that goes right to the top of the Catholic Church.
The scale of the scandal is astonishing. The Spotlight team found over 70 priests and more than 1000 victims of abuse stretching back decades, all swept under a cover of red tape and institutional complicity. And that’s just Boston. As the pre-credits cards reveal, the Globe’s story had far reaching consequences for the entire world.
Yet this is not intended as a dismantling of the Church – indeed, McCarthy and Singer go to great lengths to highlight the culpability of lawmen, politicians and even the Globe’s own reporters in ensuring the abuse remained unchecked for so long.
The real motive behind this story is to celebrate the power of journalism at a time when its influence is seen to be on the wane. Spotlight revels in the plain nitty-gritty of reporting. Our heroic hacks scribble notes, corroborate sources, knock on doors and get them slammed in their faces, all in the dogged pursuit of the truth. It works, too, exposing a conspiracy that stretches for beyond the Globe’s patch.
It’s not all abrasive interviews and fact checking, though, as McCarthy helps his captivating cast deliver relatable performances by providing glimpses into their private lives. Mike is a workaholic going through a grim divorce, Sacha is struggling to keep her work hidden from her devout granny, and Matt and Robby are both floored by the realisation the scandal spreads even closer to home than they dared fear. Far more so than anything gleaned from text books and court files, these personal insights give the story its sobering power, laying bare the terrible human cost that lurks behind the harrowing detail.
Runtime: 128 mins; Genre: Bio-Drama; Released: 29 January 2016;
Director: Tom McCarth; Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer;
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James
Click here to watch a trailer for Spotlight