Review: Spotlight | Virgin Media
Spotlight

Review: SpotlightBy Michael Pattison | Rating: ★★★★★

27/01/2016Movies

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Spotlight tells the real-life account of how, in 2002, the Boston Globe came to publish a series of articles exposing the systematic cover-up of child sex abuse by the city’s Catholic archdiocese. The scandal caused whole waves of similar exposés, whose international aftershocks continue to ripple.  The journalists responsible belonged to the newspaper’s famed Spotlight team, a four-person unit that began to amass its incriminating material in July 2001 and whose resulting output won the team a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by Josh Singer, Spotlight is a film about story and the stitching together of details: what to include, what not to include, where to place things and how. Here, narration is a matter of priority: not the voiceover kind or explanatory text kind, but the putting-things-in-the-right-place-kind.

A watched phone never rings

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo play the investigative journalists who broke a major scandal

Non-Catholic outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives as the Globe’s new editor on the back of recent personnel cuts and amid rife speculation of further overhauls. Piqued by a recent column about Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer claiming that the local cardinal actively covered up paedophilia within his ranks, Baron encourages the paper’s Spotlight team to probe further.

The team itself comprises Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and, as their de facto head, Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton). Between Robinson and Baron is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), an editorial supervisor instinctively resistant to taking on a power as pervasive as the Catholic Church.

Spotlight is a film about story and the stitching together of details

The Church’s cover-up went back decades.  Spotlight opens in 1976.  Two cops in Boston’s eleventh district discuss the legal consequences awaiting Father Geoghan, a priest they have arrested on child molestation claims. When the Assistant D.A. arrives, we hear the local bishop assuring the victims’ mother that Geoghan will be removed from his parish and that it won’t happen again.

The Spotlight team turn the spotlight on Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery)

Mad Men star John Slattery addresses the team as Boston Globe editorial supervisor Ben Bradlee, Jr.

It’s a mysteriously brief prologue but every little detail suggests that nothing about the arrest, or even molestation, is unusual.  It’s in the way the older and more experienced cop shruggingly speculates that Geoghan had been, quote-unquote, helping out the fatherless family in question, and that it’s unlikely there’ll be an arraignment. It’s in the Assistant D.A.’s order to keep the press at arm’s length. And it’s in the bishop’s avuncular, priests-will-be-priests smile. In Boston, Massachusetts, the Church has enjoyed a great deal of power over the politically vulnerable.

Promoting old-fashioned journalism as the noblest of all anti-corruption crusades, Spotlight invites obvious comparisons to the likes of All the President’s Men and The Insider in its focus on the nuts and bolts of the profession. Victims are interviewed and records perused. Documents are sought and legal loopholes discovered. Facts are checked and checked again: the Spotlighters incur fury from one abuse victim for repeating, in the interests of clarity, everything he says back to him.

The Hulk and Batman, together at last

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo take a stroll through the offices of the Boston Globe

When the team discovers just how many priests might be involved in the scandal, the camera drifts back, widening the view and underlining the broadening scope of the investigation. Cutting between the simultaneous individual efforts of the Spotlighters, the film boasts a real editorial sweep, a sense of things in constant motion (the main hook of Howard Shore’s musical score begins as early as the opening credits).

Spotlight is a newsroom thriller, a drama of gestures and chemistry. McCarthy, who appeared as hack journo Scott Templeton in the final season of The Wire, brings a sense of collective on-screen brilliance from that series to his engrossing fifth feature as writer-director. His performers are across-the-board faultless. Each comes complete with his or her own bodily mannerisms, which go some way in creating the film’s breathing, lived-in reality.

There’s Keaton, scrunching his eyes so he can read in dim lighting. There’s Ruffalo reaching over his colleague’s desk for a pen. There’s Tucci testing the heat of his soup, shaking his head at the gall of some people. There’s Billy Crudup (as Eric MacLeish, another lawyer who settled many abuse cases), stifling an unprofessional outburst with a breath-depriving smirk. There’s Schrieber, whose frills-free approach to conversation rankles the Church and its apologists. And then there’s the most telling pinpoint detail of all: Paul Guilfoyle as Peter Conley, a man with political clout and the Church’s go-to fixer, barely able to maintain his teddy bear grin after realising he can’t solve a matter by simply leaning on a guy. It’s in the details.

The film boasts a real editorial sweep, a sense of things in constant motion

Spotlight is released in UK cinemas on Friday 29th January.