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'Spotlight': Film review

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The tagline of the 2015 film Spotlight reads: “The true story behind the scandal that shook the world.” But Tom McCarthy’s biographical drama deals more effectively with the reality of journalism than it does with sexual abuse.

Opening with simple piano music, Howard Shore’s score provides a measured yet haunting backdrop to the unfolding darkness. And therein lies the power of the film: the nuanced, controlled sense of realism throughout makes the scale of the scandal all the more tangible. And all the more frightening.

Mainly set in 2001, this a true story of a group of investigative journalists working for The Boston Globe, in a unit known as ‘Spotlight’, who stumble upon allegations of a cover up of paedophilia in the Catholic priesthood. Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), are led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) to uncover the scandal that would rock the Church to its very core.

Under the watchful eye of new editor-in-chief and Jewish outsider Marty Baron (a deadpan, husky Liev Schreiber), they collaborate with paranoid attorney Mitchell Garabedian (the wonderfully barmy Stanley Tucci), and victims of abuse to reveal decades of cover up.  

Up against the overarching power of the Bostonian Catholics, beset by a battle for editorial control and fear of being scooped by rivals, the journalists must fight the clock and the church to uncover massive corruption and complicity. The Boston Globe ultimately published 600 pieces documenting the entire scandal, winning the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

The visuals are wonderful. The washed sepia tones, drained of bright colour, evoke a historical nostalgia that’s hard to do outside of a period piece. Most of the drama takes place in tight shots of enclosed interiors: claustrophobic corridors; dingy basements, and in a refreshingly lifelike office of paper piles and incessant phone ringing.

The few shots we have of Boston are a real departure from the Harvard fairy tale of cobbled streets and changing leaves. Grey, unromanticised, almost unrecognisable, the city could be anywhere. This emphasises that the shocking abuse did and does happen all over the world.

The lighting, in particular, deserves a mention –the harsh fluorescence of the office is evocative of a Vegas casino, where you can’t be sure if it’s day or night. This is an excellent visual representation of the long hours and unglamorous nature of the journalists’ work.

Much has been written about costume designer Wendy Chuck’s work on the film – The Guardian called Spotlight “arguably the least stylish film of recent years”. But this dedication to de-glamorising the work of true professionals is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

It’s exasperating to watch heroines running around dramas doing overtime with an unwrinkled trouser leg and a spring in their stilettoed step. Rachel McAdams’s gloriously unflattering slacks are a microcosm for the strengths of the film: unclichéd, aesthetically restrained, but evoking a sense of truism that movies of this kind rarely can. What’s real is not always pretty, after all.

Indeed, the film studiously avoids hero-worshipping its characters. Bribery, wheeler dealing, door stepping, and competitiveness with rival papers – these are the realities of the profession. Nor do they flinch from showing the reluctance of the team to pursue the original story in the first place. But through a carefully controlled crescendo, we vicariously experience their gripping journey from scepticism to real emotional involvement.

In fact, the overarching moral dilemma of this movie is not, as might be expected, to do with corruption or sexual abuse. The more powerful tension is between what is right, and what sells. Did they smell moral bankruptcy, or just a good story? These are real, troubling questions to which the film masterfully alludes.

It also does, for the most part, resist the urge to parade children around in front of lecherous old priests. The truly sickening aspect that we see is not the paedophiles. It’s the hunger in the eyes of the journalists as they try to make victims reveal salacious details.

But the main weakness of the film is its occasional slip into hackneyed hyperbole. The characterisation of the paedophile priests was at times clichéd and unsubtle, while some of Ruffalo’s sanctimonious outbursts about the Church were downright silly. The simple movement of a bishop leaning over a grieving family was more powerful than any amount of Ruffalo’s grandstanding or McAdams’s doe-eyed horror.  

But the calm closing shots of the films, showing all the other countries where abuse was uncovered, are commendable. They really hammer home the universality of the horror to the audience, but do so with simplicity and subtlety.  

As the attorney Garabedian says: “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.” It was a collaborative effort to conceal the abuse, but also a collaborative effort to uncover it. The most important moment is Robinson’s acknowledgement of his own unintentional complicity in the cover up. We see that burying a story, or not following it up, can be as powerful as hiding it.

The deeper message of the story is the ugly truth behind the exposé and the realities of the profession. And in the end, the film tells us more about papers than it does about priests.

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