Sometimes a film comes along that challenges your thinking and opinions and leaves you with an emotional suckerpunch. Spotlight is one of those films where the sum of all of its parts results in a perfect film, a balance between emotional drama, gripping suspense, challenging subject matter and all based on a true story.
There is something both simultaneously urgent and slow burning about this film, as we are delivered some of the finest visual representation of long-form investigative print journalism. From January 2002 the Boston Globe printed over 600 articles on child-sex abuse allegations against Catholic priests and its systemic cover-ups by the Church. This film chronicles the investigation leading up to the initially printed Pulitzer Prize winning article and the team of journalists tasked with uncovering the story. We meet the Spotlight team, lead by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the feisty and emotional Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), the compassionate Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and the quietly clever researcher Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) make up the team. They themselves are steered by managing deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) and the Globe’s newest editor in chief Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber).
Putting aside the truth of the narrative, this film directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) along with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) takes a linear and direct approach. There is no fluff or wayward detouring, it’s all about the journey of the story and how the journalists got there and it’s entirely from their view. Each of them are assigned various tasks in order to get what they need to build the article. Rezendes tracks down Mitchell Garabedian (a brilliant Stanley Tucci in what little onscreen time he has) the lawyer representing the class action against a specific priest for his involvement in abuse. Pfeiffer is tracking down the victims and trying to get their stories, whilst Carroll discovers a method of tracking the pedophile priests who were often reassigned from parish to parish by the Archdiocese where they could prey upon children anew. Robinson (with a little help from Pfeiffer) goes after top attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) when it soon becomes apparent that his repeated pitiful settlements with the Church were just enabling them to continue their dastardly deeds.
What begins as an initial targeted investigation into the acts of Father John Geoghan soon becomes a crusade against the Catholic Church and Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) , with their EIC Baron instructing that the story is bigger than just one “bad apple” priest and that they need to prove the corruption and negligence was systemic and the orders came from the top. It then becomes a race against time as the journalists try to build their story and their case before any other competing publications latch onto the info. But also knowing full well that the Church could come down hard on them should they find out what they’re up to and that their predominantly Irish-Catholic readers won’t take too kindly to what’s been printed.
The ensemble cast are perfect, with each member of the team getting their moment to shine. You could argue that Keaton and Ruffalo seem to have the most screen time but their characters are no more important than that of McAdams’ or James. Though Ruffalo really stood out for me as the one with the most noticeable emotional arc as the story progresses. The pacing is brilliantly measured, never feeling like it’s dragging its heels or rushing too fast through the timeline. The story is lean and doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. Nor do they dispense with too much backstory or purposeful tear-jerker flashbacks about child molestation. The music by Howard Shore swirls between moody and ethereal and never overpowers the dialogue. The cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook) is gorgeous, switching between long tracking shots to tight focus close ups on our characters. One moment in particular involving the team surrounding a speakerphone as they talk to a former abusive priest now a rehabilitated therapist to other offending priests is both stunningly beautiful to watch and a jaw dropping moment in clarity as the journalists begin to realise the enormity of the story ahead of them.
But what Spotlight really has going for it is how emotionally moving it is. This film examines the psychological trauma inflicted upon the victims, and how that radiates out to the stress upon the journalists in their quest to reveal the truth. And even though you know what happens, the closing title card at the end that lists all of the places around the world since that have revealed child abuse at the hands of the clergy brought me to tears.
For a film with such a weighty and controversial subject matter, Spotlight never tries to beat you over the head or be preachy about its subject matter. It merely gives you one viewpoint, the journalists’, and provides you with the facts that they uncover. This is the essence of good investigative journalism, and this film conveys just that. Adding to that an exceptional ensemble cast, beautiful and subtle cinematography combined with a haunting score it will move you in so many ways. Spotlight is a vitally important must watch film, not just because of the subject but because this really is a brilliant piece of film-making on all levels.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 129 minutes
Spotlight is screening nationally in Australian cinemas from 28 January 2016 through EntertainmentOne