In 2003, The Boston Globe earned the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, due to a series of articles published in late 2001 by the newspaper’s investigative team “Spotlight” that uncovered a series of child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church that had been knowingly covered up by the diocese. Spotlight, the latest film from screenwriter and director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent) tells the story of the Spotlight team and their quest to uncover the full extent of the abuse and the cover-up.
New editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at the Globe and immediately makes an impression by insisting that the newspaper file a motion to make public sealed documents related to the case of alleged child abuser, Father John Geoghan. For the Spotlight team - Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), these documents become a sort of Holy Grail, but they soon discover that the actual story goes much deeper, and is markedly personal for all of them.
As one of the strongest Irish-Catholic populations in the United States, Boston is a city where the Catholic Church holds an enormous amount of power. Each character’s faith (or lack thereof), as well as the faith of those around them, plays into the dynamics of the investigation. Led down a rabbit hole of sorts, the team must face the reality of what has been going on around them, under wraps, and even under their own noses, as well as try to navigate the complicity of silence and inaction.
Spotlight starts off slowly, almost hesitantly, mirroring the progress of the investigation at its centre. The pace picks up in a decisive manner as things begin to become clearer and the film’s characters become known to the audience. Thanks to a screenplay by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (who has, tellingly, written for TV procedurals such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) that is finely drawn, subtle, and masterfully structured, as well as a brilliant ensemble cast, Spotlight takes hold before you even realise that it has done so.
Michael Keaton is, as usual, brilliant as the fatherly Robby, who is soft-spoken but determined. One of the real surprises of the cast is Mark Ruffalo, who invests Michael Rezendes with a roguish charm, as well as an endearing sentimentality. Character’s back stories are kept to a minimum – after all, these are representations of real people with a right to privacy – but small touches like the inclusion of Sacha’s devout Catholic grandmother, or Matt’s fear for his own children, allow the actors to make the most of every moment they have on-screen.
For a film set almost entirely in stuffy offices, Spotlight is surprisingly visually inventive. It actually makes the most of the cramped spaces, particularly the messy Spotlight headquarters, which is given a close and homey feel that contrasts with the harsh strip-lighting of the main office or imposing official buildings. Using long takes, slow zooms and lingering close-ups, the sparkling exposition of the film is given new dimensions within these spaces.
At times, Spotlight can feel almost overwhelming. There is new information coming in almost every moment, and the audience feels the same heavy burden of the journalists as they face deadlines, competing priorities and the weight of their responsibility to make a difference. The film never shies away from openly discussing the specifics and the dynamics of child abuse and its causes within a religious setting. Often it is a shocking and frank portrayal of the long-lasting effects of victimhood that should be applauded for daring to tackle such a subject.
Spotlight opens in Australian cinemas now.