UK Release Date 29th January 2015
Director Tom McCarthy
Starring Ruffalo, Adams, Keaton, Tucci
Runtime 128 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 6th February 2016

Being the staunch atheists that we are here at BS Towers, abuse of vulnerable people by religious institutions has long since ceased to shock us. It’s a bit like looking at the banking crisis and rolling your eyes when people look surprised that it all came down to greed and corruption. Plus ca change, right? Of course, our world weary view doesn’t make these things any less shocking, the question is how to make a movie about it that offers a new perspective.

And so we arrive at the much lauded (six Caucasian nominations for the end of February) Spotlight. Directed by the man last seen sinking without a trace with The Cobbler, Tom McCarthy, it tells the true story of events at the Boston Globe during the early 2000’s (a significant period of time given the dates of the abuses uncovered) as the paper’s Spotlight investigative team works to uncover the full extent of the abuse wrought on young boys by Catholic priests in the local diocese.

As the movie tells it, the arrival of Jewish editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) at the Globe provides the push for the four-person Spotlight team to look into accusations of abuse within the community. Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), a long standing employee at the paper and now head of the Spotlight team, is instructed to put aside the work his team were doing and look into claims by lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) that Cardinal Law deliberately covered up abuse by local priest John Geoghan. As the team dig, it rapidly becomes clear that this was no isolated incident. Worse, it also becomes clear that the Globe had been fed the story years previously only for it to be dropped quietly into the Metro edition. 

Coming off the back of his previous movie, which to be honest, we’ve never quite got around to but by all accounts wasn’t exactly a stellar hit, McCarthy approaches this one with a fastidiously steady and consistent hand. This is one of the least showy movies I’ve seen, considering it’s Oscar attention. The movie’s focus is very much on the procedural investigation and the wide range of people who, though guilty of no abuse themselves, all worked together to ensure that the truth was well and truly buried. We meet a couple of actual victims but for the most part, our time is spent following the investigative reporters around as they pursue the institutions that provided the church cover.

Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) round out the Spotlight team, with each neatly representing different concerns and angles. Pfeiffer has a devout Catholic grandmother whom she escorts to church every Sunday, Rezendes lives alone with only his work to keep him occupied and Carroll’s comfortable home life is rocked with the realisation that a house used as a therapy centre for paedophile priests is on the corner opposite his family home. McCarthy weaves these vignettes of family life neatly into the procedural narrative, giving us a decent depth to the investigator’s personalities and motivations.

Of the players, Ruffalo’s Rezendes stands out. A knot of awkward social interaction, with his fists perpetually forced into the pockets of his jeans, Rezendes is tenacious and obnoxious, hounding the distant and outwardly disinterested Garabedian until he finally gives up the game changing piece of information. A good bet for best supporting actor, Ruffalo’s cocked head and penetrating glare are fascinating to watch in themselves. Tucci is magnificent as ever, his Garabedian, deep in the midsts of a lawsuit that looks out of his depth, gradually thawing to Rezendes as both realise the full horror of the situation.

Considering the consistent procedural nature of the story, McCarthy does manage to squeeze drama into the proceedings. As the investigators close on the story, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre force them from the trail, leaving the victims on hold, particularly painful given their previous attempts to gain any traction for the story in the media. The team re-group though and the moment when they put the maths together and realise they are not pursuing one priest, but potentially nearly a hundred, is devastating to behold.

Though it tends to mean the victims get less screen time, Spotlight’s focus on the people investigating the crimes and the communities that sheltered and suffered them makes for interesting, if unspectacular viewing. McCarthy’s style is muted and the performances echo this - there are no real standout moments of grandstanding from the actors. Even the climactic moment when the team arrive at the Spotlight office the day after publication of the story, to be greeted by phones ringing off the hook as victims of abuse call in, is downplayed somewhat. Everything about the movie, much like the investigation itself is workmanlike and defined by small details, meticulously pieced together into a horrible whole.

In Brief:

McCarthy has constructed a solid, fascinating movie that diligently shows a team of people working together, in a community steeped with religion, to uncover a horrible open secret and expose it to the world. There are memorable moments, in particular Robby's frank admission that he was responsible for burying the original story more than a decade earlier, but this is very much a team effort. The cast is ensemble to a fault and although nothing here will knock you sideways, the filmmakers deserve great credit for avoiding giving the story a Hollywood polish. 

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