Awards season on this side of the Atlantic rumbles on, with Tom McCarthy’s journalistically minded offering wowing people left and right long before it made it to Irish screens. And, naturally enough, it is a film whose subject matter is bound to make a serious impression on an Irish audience. Today’s Ireland is as non-secular as it has ever really been, and issues like that explored in Spotlight – namely abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy, which the Church knew about and did not do anywhere near enough to stop – is at the very core of why. The process of dragging the sordid and awful aspects of the Church’s great shame to light did not begin here, or in Boston, but the efforts of the Boston Globe’s investigative team are as good a place as any to dramatise when you look at that long and arduous process. Is Spotlight a worthy adaptation of this powerful real-life tale, or is it not up to the task ahead of it?
In 2001, the new Boston Globe editor Marty Byron (Liev Schreiber) gives Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) the task of investigating the possibility that the Catholic Church in the city is actively covering up multiple cases of child abuse being perpetrated by priests. To do that, he’ll need the Spotlight team – Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) – a group of investigative journalists known for their lengthy research and publishing schedule. Quickly, it becomes apparent that they have the story of a lifetime on their hands.
In Spotlight you have an intense film, that places its core story over everything else, including character, visuals and score. Spotlight is a film that wants to present you its tale with as little distractions as possible, so that the scope of the entire thing can just wash over you. Wash over you it will and, if you are anything like me, long before the credits roll, Spotlight will be a film to make you utterly furious. At the Church, at authorities, at paedophiles, and maybe even a little at yourself and those close to you, so close to the bone does this film cut at just the easy silent of community.
And I’m not kidding about the characters. One of the reasons that Spotlight is so strange for me is that it succeeds despite the really flat personnel that its principals are inhabiting, the Spotlight investigative team who don’t really show all that much to the audience, beyond a shared drive and innate moral decency. Robby, Michael, Sacha and Matt are not stand-out personalities, and I wouldn’t even say that any of them has anything resembling a traditional character journey.
There are nods towards such things in certain sections: Michael briefly talks about his faith in God being lapsed and unlikely to return, Sacha has a religious grandmother she worries about upsetting, Matt has kids he worries about, and Robby has a bit of a secret he doesn’t want to let out – but such things fly by in the course of narrative, coming up in just a scene or two, amidst all of the investigating. Above them all looms the Church’s terrible presence, which is probably the point.
No romantic plots, little talk of spouses, religious beliefs and precious little of “Why did Spotlight do this?”. Instead, inverting expectations, McCarthy’s film wants simply to present solid journalism practise, in the pursuit of a gargantuan story. The character issue can detract, and I wonder if my opinion of Spotlight might go down upon subsequent viewings, but in the moment it was weirdly not important, as if it was more of a documentary I was watching. But certainly in an effort to stop characters from distracting your attention from the central point, McCarthy’s film errs a bit.
And that’s no fault of the actors either, though with one exception I would say Spotlight is one of the least strenuous films of their careers. Keaton, riding high on the Birdman acclaim, has something far more low-key and restrained here, but still brings his usual humanity and verve. McAdams is just a little bit underwhelming at moments, and D’Arcy James is probably the least important of the four. He, and others, pale beside Schreiber’s excellent Baron, the outsider struggling to fit in and do good in his profession, John Slattery as the jittery editor Ben Bradlee, and Stanley Tucci’s wonderfully rude and deflecting Mitchell Garabedian.
But it’s Mark Ruffalo who deserves the most praise. I’m not sure what it is about Rezendes, played with some physical ticks that go unexplained, and with a jittery energy and accent. But despite what might be an off-putting manner, his exuberance, his energy and boundless enthusiasm to go out and chase down the story becomes an inspiration through Ruffalo’s interpretation, culminating in the one and only moment when a character decides the issue at hand deserves some serious, unadulterated anger. When Ruffalo finally lets loose, declaring “it could have been you, it could have been any of us!”, it hits home so hard it’s almost a physical blow.
There’s so much that the abuse scandal says about Boston, and the world, that it’s hard to take it all in. Stanley Tucci’s Garabedian, the low income lawyer taking on the cases that no one else seems willing to take on, puts it best when he remarks “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one as well”, just one of several cutting lines in Josh Singer’s mostly engaging script, that mixes West Wing style back and forth with lengthy scenes of silent pondering and investigation effectively. Spotlight isn’t just the story of priests abusing children, and the Church covering it up. It is the story, and the examination, of just why the police, the government, communities and even the press were willing to go along with such cover-ups, and for so long. Spotlight’s gradual exploration of the issue, its growing scope, and the final thunderous discovery of the extent of what was going on, is teased out, until the audience is fully aware that all and sundry are guilty in some way, shape or form. Everybody knew, and no one wanted to say anything, out of some kind of collective guilt and shame.
It is making us understand why this happened that Spotlight really succeeds. Expertly scripted conversations between journalist and victim track the story of a culture and a city so reverent towards Mother Church that the attentions of a priest was something to seek and to savour, and that a plea from a Bishop not to pursue a case against an abusive priest was something to respect and submit to. Numerous witnesses compare local priests to God himself, “and how do you say no to God?” Repressed sexually and given positions of authority, that terrible percentage of priests preyed and groomed young men and women from broken homes with guardians so respectful of the faith that they happily put out cookies when discussing how to cover-up their child’s abuse.
And the escalation all the way up the system becomes ever more clear, all stemming from the gross and terrible power that the Church managed to get for itself within Boston. Every silenced victim, every deluded Priest who insist they did nothing wrong, every official who knew offenders were just being moved around, and then moved around again, and every member of the press who shrugged and dumped stories where they knew they would not receive all that much attention: it all piles up and up, creating a deep and personal anger in the viewer, along with that terrible fear that you aren’t all that far removed from the circle yourself.
New Globe editor Marty Byron, a Jew, learns first hand as he struggles to get in with Boston society, and has his motives in pursuing the story questioned, as being some plot to discredit the Church. He finds himself off the list of gala events, and pointedly receives a gift of a Catholic Catechism from Cardinal Bernard Law, the man at the top in Boston, a reminder of the power the Church wields. For those already inside the circle, the problem is different: as they are warned, they could blow the top of the story, but they have to live in Boston after it’s all done. The eerie nature of a state of affairs turned into a threat when the status quo is questioned, is all encompassing in Spotlight.
There are heart-rending scenes aplenty here: the young father who doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his new-born son, the victim whose first experience of his innate homosexuality was a warped encounter with a repressed clergyman in his early teens, the journalist who discovers that one of the “treatment centres” used to protect abusers is just a few doors down from his and a never-ending list of people who were abused, and who were forced to stay silent about that abuse.
In line with that is the depiction of journalism. No prim and proper journalistic ethics all the way: rules are bent, or broken, in pursuit of the story, but in the same way that To Kill A Mockingbird was responsible for generations of lawyers, so Spotlight will probably be for a new generation of journalists, in the way it shows the ability of a small group of people, with perseverance, know-how and dedication, can bring one of the mightiest institutions in the land to its knees. McCarthy flits back and forth between different approaches really nicely: Robby’s gentle prodding of governmental higher-ups, Sacha’s emotional connections with victims, or Michael’s more hard-hitting efforts to get at the truth.
Spotlight needs as much of the positives in the departments of story and point making, because its rather pedestrian in many other ways. I’ve already mentioned character, but there are also the visuals, where Spotlight is rather drab: there’s probably an intention in the white and grey way that Boston is depicted, getting ever whiter as winter and the deadline comes, but it does not a visually interesting picture make. It is only in indoor party scenes, many of them involving the opulence of the Church in some ways, that colour comes, dazzling golds glinting in soft lights, like a golden calf as characters discuss the banality of covering up child abuse.
And Spotlight misses a trick in the way it approached Cardinal Law, a reprehensible little toad who spent decades accruing more and more power in his little Kingdom and let scores of innocent children be molested in the process. He only appears in one scene, a rather brilliant one with Schreiber, before he becomes this all-too-distant figure the Spotlight team is committed to taking down. The film could have used a bit more of him and his responses to the investigation, if only to see his reaction to the truth finally being dragged into the light. Sticking to the record, he doesn’t get his comeuppance -–far from it, mores the pity – but I think that kind of antagonist force could have done Spotlight some good. A more effective job is done with Billy Crudup’s attorney, who seems tailor made to be a villain, but who has hidden depths that become apparent.
And there is the score of Howard Shore, a similarly unimaginative thing, little more than a constant repeating piano tune, that gets marginally more intense and complicated as the film proceeds. I think the effect was supposed to reinforce the grind that investigative journalism is – plenty of montage sequences depict the reality here – and to mimic the sounds of fingers kitting a keyboard. But for me it was almost humorous by the end, the same motif for every other scene, more an auditory tick than anything else.
But despite these flaws – and the character one should be gigantic really – Spotlight remains a remarkably engaging and well-paced story. Part of that must be the way that it speaks to an Irish audience, with plenty of local places listed in the end credited as locations where similar scandals have erupted. We live in changing times in Ireland, with mass attendance dropping like a stone, priest’s numbers falling faster and a growing rejection of the idea that the Church still has a role to play in national, political or social affairs. Spotlight, simply put, shines a light on why this is coming to pass: not just abuse scandals finally being talked about and acknowledged – if not punished – but because we have finally grown tired of the power that the Church has accrued for itself, out of all proportion to its modern-day relevance and slipped moral authority.
Spotlight will make you angry, sad, emotional and back to angry again. It will be uncomfortable viewing for some, those who still talk about “a few bad eggs” and refuse to acknowledge the deep rooted and systemic problem with an organisation that represses the sexual urges of is membership, and simply moves them around when the end result of this repression is a terrible crime committed upon the innocent. With a strong script, a good cast and most importantly an interesting and relatable storyline, Spotlight hooks you in and refuses to let go until its final frames, which are in themselves a celebration both of journalistic excellence and the power of the human spirit when a veil of silence is no longer tolerated. It perhaps isn’t one to place right up there with journalistic icons like All The Presidents Men, but is worthy of great praise nonetheless. One to watch, enjoy and to bear in mind as we move forward. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Open Road Films).