By: Samar Khan
That tagline above, spoken by Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, is an apt –yet appropriately vague- description of what the film was shining a –pardon the pun- spotlight on. Tom McCarthy, director of such gems as The Cobbler (I’m kidding), brings to life the captivating tale of an investigative crack team belonging to the Boston Globe and its struggle to bring to light the sexual abuse of Catholic Church priests against children. To say he outdid everything else in his filmography is an understatement; Spotlight is the best film of the year and one that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.
The film, to put it bluntly, can best be described as detailing what goes on in the lives of journalists as they work on breaking major stories. What it means to be a journalist, whether they should proceed with covering a certain story, what sort of research is involved in compiling said story and living with the consequences of publishing the narrative that comes from the months/years of painstaking research. This film has no romantic subplots and no needless focus on one character’s personal life, with the script focusing entirely on the journalist and Church priest abuse aspect.
The audience gasped every time a major revelation or plot point was introduced, which felt as if it was every 15 minutes. Where some films would be considered overwhelming with the amount of major points being unearthed (hello M. Night Shamalama-ding-dong and his repertoire of twists), Spotlight excels. For a story that was covered in great detail in 2001-02, the Spotlight team made every new detail feel fresh and really helped bring to light the magnitude of the issue and how the highest ranks of the Catholic Church throughout the world were somehow complicit. Where a film would attempt to dramatize an ominous knocking on a door and turn it into a hit ordered by the Church, Spotlight keeps it real and avoids such pratfalls. That serves it well, as its plot points serve to hit home harder and the impact of said points is not muted by some outlandish twist that normally accompanies thrillers.
Before delving into the film’s technical and human aspects, a little backstory of the film is required. For those unfamiliar with the groundbreaking revelations of child abuse by Church officials in 2001 by the Boston Globe, the film focuses on the systemic issues that allowed such abuse to continue undisturbed for nearly a half century. As the film illustrates, this issue has not died despite coming to light nearly 15 years ago; the current Pope Francis continues to attempt to cleanse the Catholic Church of such scandals.
Focusing back on the film itself, it is held together by an ensemble cast that has no outwardly flamboyant star in terms of popularity yet that helps the film keep a realistic and grounded tone. Mark Ruffalo –the man known to many nowadays as Bruce Banner/The Hulk- draws top billing for this film and just as with the majority of performances in his career, he is excellent in an enthralling performance portraying Michael Rezendes. The intensely passionate and morally ethical character is brought to life by Ruffalo and his adoption of Rezendes’ quirky behaviour, a performance that showcases the inquisitive and animated nature of Rezendes in a manner that is simultaneously understated. Ruffalo is accompanied by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy and the aforementioned Tucci, all of whom manage to portray the essences of their characters without channeling it to Sean Penn levels of overacting.
Keaton, in particular, is a delight, continuing on from a strong, Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman. He lends a certain gravitas to the role of Walter “Robby” Robinson, the chief of the Spotlight unit of the Boston Globe that focuses on taking its time to break down and analyze all aspects of the major news that most newspapers would provide a mere cursory glance to. As the film goes on, Keaton’s weariness with the world and Boston authorities’ tendency to look the other way in instances of Church abuses is something the audience immediately relates to; as the film progresses, the audience understands just how widespread the cover-up attempt was and hopes for Keaton and co. to break the news and expose said issues.
McAdams and d’Arcy provide the main supporting roles to the duo of Keaton and Ruffalo and portray characters just as integral to the breaking of the story. McAdams, in particular, is outstanding as Sacha Pfeiffer, really grasping what made her character tick. Her expressions when interviewing former child victims of sexual abuse portray what the audience feels, with her character being exposed to the brunt of the details about the graphic nature of the sexual assaults. When her character, one who occasionally accompanies her grandmother to Church, suddenly stops doing so, the impact of the Church’s actions is magnified. As she states, she was “disgusted” by what she had found out about the Church and its cover-ups, and it becomes easy to sympathize with her character’s refusal to associate with an establishment that supports such conduct.
Schreiber and Slattery are the other two big names making up the remainder of the supporting cast and perform well when called upon. For Mad Men fans, traces of his Roger Sterling character shine through at times but in a more serious manner. It never hurts to have John Slattery on screen and as has been the norm throughout his career, he was a delight in an appropriately sized role. Liev Schreiber has developed a reputation as a very good actor and while not quite in that upper echelon, his performances on TV’s Ray Donovan have earned him acclaim that acts as solid reasoning for casting him amongst this ensemble. Despite playing a character with an integral role in the Spotlight unit taking on the priest abuse story in the first place, Schreiber plays a lesser role than the aforementioned talent and gets an equally low amount of screen time with dialogue. The majority of his appearances on screen consist of him sitting in the background within his office always working; this serves to illustrate the importance to the story of the character he portrays yet deprives the audience of the privilege of seeing his interactions with the rest of the sublime cast.
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script is the real star of the show here. The articulation of the words, the presentation of the narrative and characters was superbly brought to life on screen. Each and every person felt authentic and real which, as fans of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom know, is not an easy feat to pull off. In fact, the over-the-top nature of Sorkin’s TV drama served to lessen the impact of its presentation of journalists within the newsroom; the true-to-life writing of the characters in Spotlight served to make every scene feel that much bigger. For a two-hour film, the fact that there is not one moment where the audience is not captivated is a testament to its storytelling. Pacing issues have plagued many a film and held them back from elite status (Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes to mind) but McCarthy and co. manage to grab the viewer from the get-go and do not allow their minds to wander throughout.
On the technical side of things, minimalism as employed by McCarthy and co. worked extremely well. The use of sound was subdued and sporadically utilized to great effect, with the score kicking in on scenes that demanded it but also simultaneously avoiding being overwhelming to the point of exhaustion. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography was excellent but won’t gain any major acclaim with the majority of the film’s scenes taking place within offices or close quarters conditions. One scene, in particular, involving Mark Ruffalo reading a letter whilst riding in the back of a taxi, needs to be witnessed for the sheer artistic brilliance of it. Suffice it to say, it is a gorgeous scene spanning nearly two minutes that extends the plot yet is visually gorgeous.
One of my favourite scenes came towards the end when the film showcases the classic scene of newspapers being printed while being run through those gizmos. The reason for this is because it gave me (and judging by the reactions of the audience around me) a great joy in realizing that the brilliantly constructed work of the Spotlight team was being brought out into the open, being brilliantly reconstructed for the modern audience in 2015 by the work of the Spotlight team.
Spotlight makes you want to head down to the courthouse, bring a pen and paper with you and begin asking the tough questions that you know are not being explored thoroughly. With it being such a wonderful investigative news drama, it is telling when you can place it alongside other political thrillers the likes of All the Presidents Men and The Insider, two particular favourites of many a film critic –and yours truly- that had the same sort of effect on viewers. It was a film that, despite covering material that is nearly 15 years’ old which itself was covering material nearly 45 years old, felt that it had to be made.
Spotlight is an extremely important film and us here at The Film Lawyers wholeheartedly recommend that you take some time out of your weekend to catch a showing. You will not regret it and who knows, this may just inspire you to become the sort of inquisitive individual that can bring about change. With excellent execution across the board, it is hard not to grace Tom McCarthy’s directorial masterpiece with a score of A+.