Any film about investigative journalists will always have to survive a comparison with All The President’s Men – not least Spotlight, which features Ben Bradlee Jr, as played by John Slattery. Where other films revel in a clash between heroes and villains, Spotlight is a lot more subtle and a lot more engrossing.
Spotlight follows a group of investigative journalists for the Boston Globe as they uncover a huge scandal within the Boston establishment, which ends up uncovering a history of abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church on a global scale. The focus of the film is less on the crimes themselves, but more the efforts to uncover them. The team breaks into different tasks, each developing an element of this tightly constructed film’s chief target. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) battles an establishment who would prefer that the story go away, while Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) chases the evidence and a seemingly doomed victim’s lawsuit headed by embattled and disgruntled lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) tracks down and interviews some victims.
After one film in which the filmmakers toned down their own material and another in which a filmmaker openly did not trust his own material, it is a relief to see a film of such confidence and skill. Spotlight is as much a procedural as anything else, a slow burner that is nonetheless engrossing, not unlike, apologies, All The President’s Men. Every stumbling block and sudden revelation that comes Rezendes’ way is dramatic and interesting and Ruffalo runs around gamely. But the film is most disturbing when it tackles the ways in which the conspiracy of silence is maintained – decent men who suggest that there is nothing in the story, keeping the voices low so their wives don’t hear. There is even a mystery in the film as it is revealed that someone on the paper suppressed evidence of the abuse years ago. This, however, is not played up as a twist, but more as a disturbing and subtle portrayal of how easily the Church was able to get away with it for so long.
The film is not about the victims, though scenes of Pfeiffer interviewing some victims are presented with tact and respect. It is a film about investigative journalism and the ease with which the status quo can be maintained in the face of systematic abuse. The film dabbles with the tropes of the conspiracy thriller. Richard Jenkins plays Richard Snipe, an ex-priest and psychotherapist who states, chillingly, that the abuse is endemic within the priesthood, who is never seen and only heard through a telephone – being this film’s Deep Throat (another comparison). We frequently see shots of the homes of the victims with a massive church steeple towering imposingly over them – hardly subtle, but undeniably effective. One scene, in which a retired priest gladly admits his crimes to Pfeiffer, is as close as the film gets to thrilling, and it is nail-biting. Equally, the power of the Church, the resources they have to fight back, the good old men who are on their side, the silence and disinterest of the parties that should have revealed everything and the sheer scale of the abuse (shown starkly at the close of the film in a long list) give the film a sense of eeriness and danger.
Tom McCarthy, who played a journalist a lot less troubled by integrity in The Wire, films tightly and confidently. Spotlight is a rare film that relies on its material without fear or the misguided belief that the audience will understand the film better with an over the top score, a recognisable villain, a false dramatic arc. Indeed, the film doesn’t really have a villain and there is little in the film that is directly threatening, but that is what the best investigative journalism is – a chase, requiring patience and integrity, but in the end revealing something about all of us. Indeed, anger is ultimately not the film’s response, more a stunned sadness. What is ultimately so sobering about Spotlight in its representation of how the Church’s crimes were revealed, is how it took so long for the cover-up to break. Spotlight is as much a tribute to good journalism as it a warning about the secrecy and silence that surrounds any powerful social organisation.