Appearing like an act of contrition following calamitous Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler last year, Tom McCarthy’s latest directorial offering is as austere a movie as we’re likely to get this awards season outside of The Danish Girl. Working with production company Anonymous Content (who, by no coincidence were behind HBO’s The Wire in which McCarthy starred), Spotlight accounts the true story of the investigative team at The Boston Globe who uncovered a monumental scandal in the second half of 2001; a network of secrecy in the system protecting Catholic priests who had been abusing children.
Like most things of this nature, it started small, but the more the team kept pulling the thread, the more the injustices unraveled. What begins with just one case suddenly threatens to expose as many as 90 priests in the Boston area alone. It was a landmark investigation, and it is dramatised here with a commendable level of integrity.
And integrity is the watch word of the film. Not only in terms of how it was abused by these priests who took advantage of the faith of innocent boys and girls, but also in terms of journalistic integrity; everyone wants the story told right. And then add to that the integrity on the part of McCarthy and his team in bringing these events to the big screen. Commendably, the screenplay doesn’t whitewash the paper itself; pointedly highlighting the Boston Globe’s own inaction on the subject some years earlier. It’s a refreshing concession, even if it’s briskly swept under the carpet in the final act.
This is an ensemble work, and everyone pitches in. Mark Ruffalo is getting most of the attention as passionate journalist Mike Rezendes, and he’s as dependable here as ever, but in a film so doggedly low-key in terms of dramatic fluff, it’s perhaps more than coincidental that Ruffalo is also the most animated. He is the only one to blow his stack at any point in a film which seems determined to remain measured and sanguine, almost to a fault.
Equally impressive, if not more so are the understated turns from Michael Keaton (better here than in the blustery Birdman), Rachel McAdams (underlining why she was the best thing about True Detective season 2) and Stanley Tucci as beleaguered lawyer Mitchell Garabedian. McCarthy’s film is essentially all talk – that’s the bread and butter of how this work is done – and he and co-screenwriter Josh Singer have gone to great pains to capture authenticity rather than theatrics. This is a muted presentation that asks for your attention and respect rather than demanding it. So much so that my friend who I saw it with asked the question; why not just make a documentary?
Why not just make a documentary? The answer, so far as I can see it, is for the attention. Documentary cinema has been in a resurgence, that’s true, but the screening I went to was a sell out, something it’s hard to imagine happening if the film had been presented in a more strictly factual form without the star power and awards buzz nestled behind it. Would I have gone to see a documentary on this subject, I asked myself. Probably not, was my answer. This is a criticism of society’s willingness to avoid confronting issues such as this one, something the film pushes at expertly. My own reticence shows that I’m as much to blame as anyone.
Still, the film we have feels cautiously sedate. Serious and worthy, absolutely, but respectable rather than essential. It’s procedural. That’s very commendable, but it leaves the viewer in a curious place in which you’re both impressed and frustrated at the level of restraint. The irony is that Spotlight falters the most when it attempts anything else. A late montage in which Rachel McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer watches her devout grandmother read the final story is touching… too bad this is interspersed with Ruffalo standing in the doorway of a church almost blubbing at the sight of a children’s choir. That’s heavy-handed. It almost feels like self-parody.
And – spoiler – they do write the story. As important as that is, it feels as though the film curiously missed the point by stopping there, wrapping up with the familiar and-then-this-happened run of on-screen text. Spotlight, as it turns out, isn’t about the misconduct of an alarming number of priests; it’s about the process of writing a story about it. It’s about journalism. One suspects the juiciest dramatic meat happens immediately after the credits rolled.
Sure, it’s heavily one-sided. That’s understandable. I can’t imagine that there are many people queueing up to make a movie in defense of these monsters. But there are also curious threads left open. Are semi-sinister threats of church retaliation there purely to sensationalise the trailer for Spotlight? Once done with these allusions are never touched on again. While important characters in the narrative have a tendency to disappear from view (anyone seen Billy Crudup in the last act? Anyone?).
When I think of the best of modern cinema’s investigative true life dramas – Michael Mann’s The Insider or David Fincher’s Zodiac – Spotlight seems some way short of the bar. But that is not to say that it is a bad example. Far, far from it. Everyone puts in good work. This is an important topic worth illuminating. American cinema benefits from the example it sets in terms of intelligent, committed and serious storytelling. But there’s a spark missing. Maybe that’s the nature of the disturbing subject matter at hand. It’s distressing to think about. People don’t want to hear about it. Exactly how we start having these conversations is an ongoing process.