Some readers might remember a wonderful little film years ago called The Station Agent, (2003) a film that ought to have won an Oscar for the maker’s débute, but it never got a wide release in cinemas, and mass popularity is what gets a film to the Oscar jury’s notice. It is shown on late night television from time to time. It was written and directed by the same Tom McCarthy who has ‘helmed’ (as they say in LA) this fine piece of work.
And the story in Spotlight, McCarthy’s fourth film, is doubly interesting because of the shenanigans our own Scottish newspapers have gotten into over their obsession for discrediting supporters of self-governance, many their very own readers, discredit them by any means possible. This story is about journalists with the exact opposite motivation; about the lack of accountability in those with power over us.
A bunch of hard working hacks come upon an explosive story of sleaze in the Catholic church. What should they do?
Today we are all familiar with ‘errant’ priests, and how, criminally, the Catholic church hid them out of sight for years, moving them from one city to another if any were named.
Spotlight is what Los Angeles film buffs call a ‘shirt-sleeve newsroom drama.’ It tells the tale of how Boston Globe reporters exposed the scope of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, an unsavoury subject in any form, here told with honesty, and forthrightness.
What we get is a tense detective thriller, a press-exposé procedural drama, a testament to men and women who get the job done without flash, much cash, or rampant egos. If it doesn’t win an Oscar or two I’ll eat a copy of the right-wing Press and Journal.
It’s less an elegy for the craft of news reporting than a rallying cry. Though it’s set in 2001 and early 2002 – practically ancient times in the recent history of newspapers – Spotlight feels both timeless and modern.
New Globe laid-back, almost monosyllabic, editor Marty Baron, (Liev Schreiber) asks his staff if the church’s record of protecting sex offenders isn’t something the paper should be looking into. The protests and excuses to leave it alone come from all sides, including deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., (John Slattery) and long-time reporter and editor of the ‘Spotlight’ investigative section, Walter “Robby” Robinson, (Michael Keaton), who together lead the paper’s Spotlight team, a crew of reporters devoted to long-term investigations.
No one wants to tangle with the church. (That sounds a bit like, ‘no one expects the Spanish Inquisition’, there’s irony there.) But Baron, with little more than a Roger Moore arched eyebrow, persuades the Spotlight staff to investigate. Actually, Schreiber deploys an infinite variety of arched eyebrows to construct a marvellously detailed performance.
The last time I remember investigative journalism to this standard here in Scotland was the Herald newspaper’s publication of all the Westminster myths about Scotland being a subsidy junky. I gave a cheer reading it; journalism at its best. One of the two journalists involved was Douglas Fraser, now working for BBC Scotland. I have a copy still. The investigation smashed all the myths, and then to its shame, the Herald resorted to type and turned on independence supporters.
Before the Herald truth piece the most notable piece of investigative journalism was the Times under the editorship of the great Harold Evans, and his expose of the thalidomide scandal. That was before Murdoch got his clammy hands on the Times. These days, investigative journalists are as scarce as woolly mammoths. They’re too busy chasing shallow celebrities.
Spotlight is perfectly cast, and the performers melt right into their roles: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams (of Scots parentage) and Brian d’Arcy James play the three Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matty Carroll.
Ruffalo is one of those actors who keeps popping up in liberal roles, yet somehow misses greatness. He has a thin, reedy voice, but here uses it to good advantage, ranting and raving at his colleagues inability to move fast enough to protect vulnerable children.
Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a man who’s given over his body, and not just his mind, to his work: he’s all sleepless, droopy eyes, sloping shoulders from too much typing, too much note-taking, too much hands-free phone-cradling. Stanley Tucci, the actor I call Stanley Toupee on account of the different rugs he wears for each role, wearing another in this, is his alter ego, and just as superb as an Armenian attorney. In fact, the cast is faultless.
Mention of phones reminds me, Spotlight takes place before cellphones were ubiquitous, only the chief journalists seem to have a Captain Kirk flip phone. It takes a few minutes to get used to the absence of iPhones and iPads.
Rachel McAdams gives a fine performance too as Pfeiffer, understated, an empathetic listener who draws the deepest secrets from her subjects, in one case an abuse victim who has suffered privately for years, afraid to come forward. Joe, (Michael Cyril Creighton) in a deeply touching, gently modulated performance freely admits he’s gay, and says he knew it as a schoolboy, when he was repeatedly molested by a priest he trusted.
The scene is all the more poignant when he tells her (and us) the priest that molested him told him it was okay to be gay, the opposite doctrine to that promulgated by the Catholic church of the day, an example of the sinister power predatory “servants of God” had over innocent youth, boys and girls.
I was working a time in Los Angeles when the scandal broke there. The cardinal had celebrated the building of the new cathedral at a vast cost of several hundred million dollars mostly donated by poor Latinos living on the edge of poverty.
How could the church take their hard-earned pittance of savings from them? When I visited the cathedral, placed right next to Frank Gehry’s silver fish of a Disney Concert Hall, I remember remarking on its architectural plainness. It occurred to me the money could have been better spent among the poor than taken from the poor. You can say the church screwed its flock two ways, but that might be putting it a little crudely, if bluntly.
To my mind Spotlight, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, gets everything right, perfect casting, believable backdrops, music, and costumes. If Oscars were handed out to the costume designers who get real-life clothes exactly right, Wendy Chuck surely would win one. Characters all look as if fashion is meaningless, you can sleep in your clothes!
Spotlight also makes it clear that the Globe draws much of its staff from people who grew up in, and know, the area, regardless of class. Going for the story is the thing that unites them, and McCarthy nails that bustling newsroom atmosphere. This is a moral story, a David versus Goliath battle, without need for a car chase or shoot-em up final solution.
The Spotlight team’s research uncovered nearly 100 sex offenders who had been protected by Cardinal Law and the Boston Archdiocese; after the initial story ran, in January 2002, many more victims who had long remained silent came forward.
Considering those astonishing results, what’s remarkable about Spotlight is how unflashy it is. Reporters aren’t always heroes – mistakes come with the territory, and Keaton’s Robinson has to reckon with some himself. And that brings me to Keaton himself.
Keaton is terrific – his performance has greater depth, more layers, than the one he gave in last year’s Birdman. Rather than making journalism look glamorous, Spotlight captures its drab, grey, workaday nature. You don’t crack a story like this one by trolling the Web to see what already broken news you can repackage. Or lining up demonised cybernat innocuous comments for trial as if the McCarthy period and communism.
If only Scotland’s newspapers were like the Globe.
I saw Keaton a few feet from me in an LA restaurant not so long ago, probably buoyant about the reception for this film shown at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s way below average size. Amazing what a mask, a rubber suit, and the right camera angle can do for a vertically challenged actor.
Though a few critics find the pace of the film plodding, audiences have eaten it up. It gets a very high rating, 96, in the public internet forum Rotten Tomatoes. Spotlight is a great American newspaper movie in the tradition of All the President’s Men. It’s exhilarating, as that picture was. The fragile state of newspapers today gives it a more urgent, melancholy context. President’s Men was made when we knew the outcome of their investigations, Nixon got burned for his unlawful acts. There was no mystery to solve, yet that and this film hold our attention from beginning to end.
After I left the cinema I thought about the film’s message – it’s an old fashioned screenplay with a message, the kind we’ve not seen for a long time. I came to the conclusion that when a newspaper dies, the stories of its city and its people are in danger of dying with it.
I wondered how the death of our newspapers, the Scotsman and the Herald, the Daily Record and Mirror, scrabbling to get the skinny on cybernats, smearing SNP MPs, publishing brazen lies about Scotland’s economy and its oil, supporting the rich and the powerful even when it’s clear they are corrupt, day after day selling us lazy, sloppy, slip-shod, piss-poor journalism, how will we feel when they switch off the lights and lock the gate for the last time? Each month brings another loss of sales. I thought…..
… they’ll only have themselves to blame.
Make no mistake – the loss of a newspaper is a loss to democracy. Spotlight stands in defiance of indolent, lazy newspaper journalists with no integrity, and asserts that the price of that defiance is worth paying.
- Rating: 4 stars
- Director: Tom McCarthy
- Screenplay: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer
- Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michel Keaton
- Length: 2 hrs 8 minutes