WHEN 2015 ended, as usual every critic both amateur and professional rolled out their choices for the best films of the year, usually in a Top 10 list. Unfortunately, here in the UK we have to wait until January and February of the next year to see many of the biggest awards darlings released, so making a “Best Of” list in December seems pretty redundant when it’s bound to be massively overhauled before Oscar night.
I love looking at these year-end lists because it helps build hype for these gems we’re yet to see. Room, The Big Short and Creed are just some of the 2015 stunners we didn’t receive until 2016, but towering above them all was this film called Spotlight. I hadn’t even heard of Spotlight until it snuck in and blew every critic away at the tail-end of the year, and I had a long month to wait until it came our way at the end of January.
I’m late to the party in declaring Spotlight a perfect movie and one of the year’s very best (it’s my second pick after Room), but at a time when Ride Along 2 and Dirty Grandpa are box office hits it really is important that Spotlight be given the… well… spotlight. It’s truly excellent.
The film is based on a true story from 2001 and 2002 about a team of four journalists (nicknamed ‘Spotlight’) at the Boston Globe, which faces competition from rival paper the Boston Herald and the impending rise of online media. Spotlight’s role on the lowest floor is to laboriously research major scandals and systematic corruption over the period of several months if not years. The story only breaks when it’s airtight and inescapable, and Spotlight’s team show incredible dedication and thoroughness in their missions.
New editor Marty Baron (played by a low-key Liev Schreiber) joins The Globe and assigns Spotlight the job of digging deeper into the alleged sexual abuse in the local Catholic Church. Baron is a Jew in a predominantly Catholic town and all four members of Spotlight are from a Catholic background, while the Globe benefits from a good relationship with the local church and their charities. Cardinal Bernard Law (played by Len Cariou, a name which musical theatre geeks will find very exciting) is a pillar of the community, but Baron and the Spotlight team are curious about what action he took with the priests who were hurried out of the community after being caught molesting children.
Unfortunately, most people seeing this film will already know the answer: priests who are caught are simply relocated or put on dubious “sick leave” and the church has a team of lawyers who can deal with the individual families out of court. Those who do make a stink about the church, such as lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (played by world-class character actor Stanley Tucci) and zealous support group founder Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), are discredited, silenced by the church and largely ignored by the press.
The Spotlight team themselves, played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James, are all carefully written and played, and reportedly follow their real-life counterparts in close detail. The actors spent time with the journalists they were depicting and writer-director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer interviewed them extensively to nail the details. There are bound to be some alterations and contrivances but they certainly don’t show. Even the interruption of the project by the sudden emergency of 9/11 isn’t excised, although it disrupts the momentum of the story, because it’s honest. This isn’t just a good film about journalism, it’s refreshingly journalistic in its own approach.
As a result of the film’s adherence to detail, it ends up with one minor problem for first-time viewing: There are dozens of names and faces to remember, due to the sheer number of people involved. We learn about so many priests, both guilty and innocent, victims, lawyers, journalists and others that keeping track will be difficult. There were several occasions when a new character entered the scene and I couldn’t remember if we’d seen them before. But that’s also a strength, as it emphasises just how large and daunting the case is and how many reputations are at stake.
All of the leads do a great job, with Mark Ruffalo’s performance as the passionate and ethical Michael Rezendes receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination. I think that’s mostly because Ruffalo has the “Oscar reel” monologue while the likes of Keaton and Tucci blend into the ensemble. Rezendes struggles the most with the realisation that this could all have been stopped years ago, and his faith is challenged.
He’s also often the one who first receives the crucial documents and must share them with his colleagues, and he’s the most impatient and frustrated as the team work their way through the system and gather their data. He is central to one of the film’s most poignant scenes, when he is confronted by the fact that while they trawl through cases from years ago, there are new offenses against children happening every day that they wait.
Rachel McAdams, who shines as determined, empathetic reporter Sacha Pfeiffer in a number of great interview scenes, also received a nomination for Supporting Actress. McAdams is well into her second decade of making movies and has proven diversity far beyond just being a blonde bombshell but is rarely cast in roles which utilise her skills this well. Neither of these stars will win for this film, but that’s fine by me because the cast excels as a unit rather than as individuals.
As dark as the subject matter is, I need to emphasise that this isn’t a dour and miserable film. There’s a sharp satirical edge to it and the characters are fun to spend this time with. There are a surprising number of laughs derived from how ridiculous and unfair the whole conspiracy is, and the interviews with survivors are tinged with gallows humour and snide malice against the corrupt church.
Everybody needs to see this film; not just because it’s a great piece of cinema, but because its story needs to be remembered if it’s not to be repeated. It’s the rare film that depicts journalism as the vital force for change that it can be, and educates the audience about the nature of the business. Even representatives of the Catholic Church have praised the film for its fair and respectful depiction of the Pullitzer-winning investigation. And in a time when Twitter quotes and paparazzi seem to dominate the idea of modern journalism, it’s important to remember that careful, traditional, investigative journalism can change the world.