With this week’s release of Stillwater, Tom Crowley takes a look back at Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film Spotlight.

The 88th Academy Awards took place on 28th February 2016. Leonardo DiCaprio had just won his first, long awaited Best Actor award and Alejandro G. Inarritu had just become the first filmmaker to win back to back Best Director awards. Both of these achievements garnered from their frontier survival drama The Revenant (2015). It was set-up for a hat-trick, however Tom McCarthy’s drama about investigative journalists Spotlight (2015) didn’t read the script. This is not to say that this is a story of David defeating Goliath. McCarthy’s Spotlight boasts a cast ensemble any other film would be envious of. However, the budgets for both film’s show a chasm between the productions. The Revenant’s $135 million dollars to Spotlight’s $20 million dollars. Thematically and aesthetically the film could not be more different and if The Revenant was favourite on the night, Spotlight in retrospect was the worthy winner. 

Spotlight gets its title from a subsection of journalists working for the Boston Globe and focuses on their work in breaking the story of the cataclysmic and systemic culture of child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. We pick up the story during a changing of the guard for The Globe. Their old editor has gone into retirement. In his place comes Martin Baron (Liev Schrieber). He is immediately othered by higher ranking members of Boston’s society including the then Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. One character describes him as ‘an unmarried, Jewish man who doesn’t like baseball’ in an incredulous tone; he doesn’t fit the profile to be the head of Boston’s largest and most popular newspaper. In a meeting towards the beginning of the film the aptronymic Cardinal Law tries to get Baron onside, apparently he too in the past was cast as a ‘meddling outsider’. He states plainly that ‘Boston is a small town in many ways’ before gifting Baron with a copy of the Catechism.  

Baron will not be intimidated by the passive-aggressive behaviours of the powers that be and weaponises the already esteemed Spotlight team to dig deeper into the church’s horrific transgressions. McCarthy’s film posits that it takes an outsider to see the rot within a community. He, along with screenwriting partner Josh Singer are clever enough to know that however recent these events occurred, they are still making an historical drama. Audiences of 2015, unless they have been living in a deep state of denial, know now the extent to which priests on a global scale have engaged in sexual misconduct up to and including the rape of children. They are also aware of the extent to which the Catholic Church as an institution has gone to cover up these heinous crimes. So they embed their film in character. The Spotlight team consists of Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). We invest in these characters and the shock and the horror that the audience feels is not just the eventual scale of the atrocities that these people uncover, but also from each layer of the onion they unpeel. 

This is thanks in no small part to the acting on display. The release of this film coincided with something of a career renaissance for Michael Keaton, coming in off the back of an Oscar nomination for his work on Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) (coincidentally directed by the aforementioned Inarritu). Until that point, Keaton was mainly utilised in comedic roles. He brings his inherent charm to his character but dials it back a notch to portray a worldly and experienced team leader. The stand out performance is given by Mark Ruffalo, he perfectly embodies a dogged, nosy, probing and passionate journalist type. The dialogue written for these characters is oftentimes expository, however the delivery by all players prevent it from becoming didactic. We get to know just enough about their personal lives so they do not become shells to serve a plot. It is a fine balance by the screenwriting duo. Another balance that McCarthy strikes is between how frankly he delivers the material and how sensitive he is in representing the victims. 

I’d like to talk to a Boston native who has watched this film. The line ‘it takes a community to raise a child and it takes a community to abuse one’ is a fairly damning piece of dialogue. This particular reviewer agrees with this philosophy, however this is a global catastrophe and Boston is quite glaringly singled out as a microcosm of it. If you look at the most recent entries of Boston set films in cinematic history, Mystic River (2003),  The Departed (2006), Gone Baby Gone (2007), all of which you might agree fall into the ‘city as a character in the movie’ category and all of which focus on themes of corruption and deep, hidden secrets. Is this a reflection on the city or the artists who perceive it? Screenwriters of all three films were born or spent their formative years in the Boston area. Dennis Lehane, who wrote the novels from which Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone were adapted is also a Boston native. Whatever, the shockingly long list of cities that occupy Spotlight’s final title cards makes it clear that corruption and predatory behaviour in the extreme is everywhere and this film is a reminder that if we as members of society are not vigilant, it is our most vulnerable that will suffer the consequences. 


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