"They knew and they let it happen, it could have been you, it could have been me. It could have been any of us."
Michael Keaton has now starred in two films with actors who have portrayed the Incredible Hulk given that last year he was acting alongside Edward Norton in ‘Birdman’ and now he joins Mark Ruffalo in ‘Spotlight’. The reason I bring this up is because ‘Birdman’ went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and ‘Spotlight’ could well do the same.
Having read a small column concerning abuse within the Catholic Church and potential cover ups within the organisation the new editor of the Boston Globe encourages his investigative journalism team (called spotlight) to look into the story as their next project. What they discover will lead to a scandal more complex and large scale than they could have imagined that is unlike any other in recent history.
For a subject this sensitive one would of course have to be cautious going into ‘Spotlight’, can they handle such an incident with care and attention without side stepping the details and drama of the situation. They most certainly can. This film is not bent upon recreating the actual story itself, it seeks simply to reveal how the truth was thrust into the forefront and made public, the work that these journalists did against immeasurable powers. At the risk of being similar to everyone, I can only compare it to films such as ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Zodiac’. In the simplest of descriptions they are films about Watergate and serial killers and in this case the abuses in the Church, but in reality they are about truth, obsession, courage and investigation.
They are not necessarily themes that inspire a thrilling film, especially one where the investigation process occurs over many months and years (the spotlight team’s work is at one point halted by the turmoil of 9/11). But ‘Spotlight’ is remarkably riveting and gripping throughout, not only that but it is also shocking and surprising on multiple occasions. The full magnitude of their findings escalates to an astonishing level and is able to reach the reporters on an intimate level so frequently that it is continually astonishing. One such example is when Brian d’Arcy James’ character discovers one priest suspected of abusing children but was never brought to public attention, lives on his street, he runs to the man’s house in the middle of the night and simply stares at it, his entire world outlook warped dramatically. This is just one occasion in which ‘Spotlight’ takes this gargantuan story and uses it to reflect the personal struggles of its characters with their own emotional reactions to what they are discovering.
These characters are not glorified or idolised either. We get snapshots into their lives beyond the newspaper (though we instantly know that for them work comes before home). We see the small ways in which the church has permeated their home lives as they now work to uncover its ugly secret, Rachel McAdams finds it more difficult to attend church every Sunday with her family as the film progresses, eventually refusing to go. These glimpses do not obstruct the main story as this portrait is achieved with such minimalism and suggestiveness that the film can plough through its own story and convey this drama simultaneously. Everything from Tom McCarthy’s direction to the production design and even the acting is intended to create a world with the subtlest of techniques. We know these people and this story.
Then there are the tiny details that add an air of ambiguity to the process leading up to the investigation. We discover at the start that the Globe’s readership is down, their new editor is considered an outsider to the Boston culture, as one previous writer points out ‘He’s the paper’s first Jewish editor’. It avoids condemning anyone without justification, one key question that permeates the film is ‘how many knew?’ Did this scandal really go all the way to the Vatican? We are unlikely to ever know for sure, and the film knows that. It focuses more on the personal truth, the psychological trauma the victims undergo and how it plagues them into their adult life. How some have yet to tell parents, friends, partners and children as well the ones that did tell only to be suppressed by the same people. It even takes time to focus on the effect the news has on horrified supporters of the church.
It falls upon the actors to convey all of this in a realistic way, not to exaggerate or emphasise their emotional output, just to capture a realistic and gripping scenario. They all succeed perfectly from the frustration felt when obstacles are put in their way (even to the extent of a photocopier being unavailable for the next twelve hours feeling like a minor tragedy) to the sheer disbelief of what they are uncovering. Mark Ruffalo may be giving the best performance of his career here restrained and dogged for the first half of the film but as the story becomes more complex he becomes a man desperate and determined to break the truth, impatient with the slow pace of their investigation, tired of the obstructions to his work and Michael Keaton is utterly fantastic again.
Subdued when it needs to be and sometimes disturbing, ‘Spotlight’ conveys a sense of realism that few films do. It allows its actors to disappear into their roles, lets the direction build entire environments with incredible subtlety and remains completely gripping throughout.