Review – Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci


Revelations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the institutional cover up which protected its perpetrators, have rocked communities all over the world. The effect has been particularly devastating in cities where the church and the wider community are almost inseparable. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight takes its title from the small, four person investigative team at the Boston Globe who, in 2001, uncovered a scandal in the local archdiocese which started a snowball effect which would be felt around the globe and earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.

The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Baron has worked at the New York Times and the Miami Herald, so he has serious credibility. But he is Jewish, unmarried, and doesn’t even like baseball. In other words, he is not Boston. In his first meeting with the Globe staff he draws their attention to a small column buried deep in the paper about a local priest who has been convicted of child sex offences and decides that this will become the next target for the Spotlight team: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). While on face value their initial leads and contacts seem questionable, it becomes apparent that there might just be something in this story. One priest becomes four. Four becomes thirteen. Thirteen becomes eighty-seven. But they need to tread carefully. As Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) reminds Baron, “Boston is still, in many ways, a small town.” And the Catholic Church is at the centre of it. 53% of the Globe’s subscriber base is Catholic, and while none of the team are practicing Catholics, they all have some form of personal connection with the church. This is, after all, Boston.

The Spotlight team then have to wrestle with the question of what to publish and when to publish. With emotions running high, some want to get the story out straight away, to warn the public about these predators. Baron is adamant though that the story is not just about paedophile priests, regardless of how many there are. He doesn’t want to tell a “bad apples” story. The story they need to reveal is that of a system that protected these predators, that covered up the offences, and that enabled them to continue.

McCarthy’s film casts an even wider net, and this is what makes it so interesting. It asks broader questions. As Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, crusading lawyer for numerous survivors puts it, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Spotlight argues that the Catholic Church is not the only institution complicit in these crimes. The evidence has been there a long time for those who have cared to look. So the city of Boston and even the Globe itself are shown to have played their parts over the years by choosing to look the other way and not to confront uncomfortable truths.

Spotlight is a classic newsroom procedural, a genre with a rich cinematic tradition. Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, about the Washington Post’s expose of Watergate, is the obvious point of comparison here, a comparison invited not only on a formal level but a narrative one, with Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) being the son of the famous executive editor who guided the Washington Post through the Watergate scandal. This slow-burning thriller draws its drama out of interviews with victims, phone calls, meetings, and montages of reading and research. It may not sound like much, but it works. Co-writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) perform a careful balancing act with Spotlight. On the one hand the film continues the genre’s idealistic message that good journalism is beneficial to society as a whole, while on the other hand it refuses to disrespect the victims of these crimes by making this scandal nothing more than the backdrop for a heroic journalism movie.

Spotlight is a noticeably restrained and unshowy film, at both a visual and verbal level. There is no lyrical, Sorkin-esque dialogue (though we do get West Wing-style walking and talking, corridor tracking shots) or overblown theatrics. McCarthy opts for a clean and controlled style which lets the material and performances stand for themselves.

Always known as an actor’s director, McCarthy here gets the chance to work with a true ensemble cast of the highest order. Michael Keaton continues his recent career resurgence with a layered performance as “Robby” Robinson, the editor of the Spotlight team who prefers to think of himself as a player-coach. Mark Ruffalo, as Mike Rezendes, gives the film’s largest performance – acting with his whole body, his posture, his gait – and as such has been the focus of Spotlight’s awards buzz, but the more understated work of Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James is every bit as affecting. Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci are also particularly good in supporting roles.

The nature of its content means that Spotlight was likely always going to be an interesting and important film. But McCarthy’s cast and crew have made it engrossing. Spotlight carefully and respectfully delivers its material for maximum impact and asks some challenging questions along the way.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Spotlight? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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  1. Pingback: The Doctor of Movies’ Top 10 of 2016 | Doctor of Movies

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