Spotlight review: “utterly engrossing from start to finish”

A superb ensemble cast re-creates the story of how a small team of investigative journalists dared to take on the Catholic Church to expose a history of abuse and cover-up

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★★★★★

In 2001, The Boston Globe published a story about a local priest who was accused of child abuse. After that, they discovered a number of similar stories, uncovering evidence that implicated 87 priests in the Boston area. Worse still, their investigation proved that these scandals had been covered up by high-ranking members of the Catholic Church.

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This extraordinary story is dramatised in Spotlight, a riveting, quietly intelligent drama that deserves all the praise it has been receiving. Sticking to the facts, the film depicts real events and real people, detailing how a small, four-person team managed to uncover a major scandal. Here, we follow that team (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James) as they put the pieces together.

Their painstaking investigation begins with the arrival of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a calm, diligent man who has just been appointed as The Globe’s new editor. He asks the team to follow up on the aforementioned priest, pointing out that a local attorney (Stanley Tucci) claims to have documents that incriminate Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston.

From here, the evidence begins to stack up, leading them to countless other priests who have molested children. At this point, Baron instructs his writers to focus on the big picture, asking them to provide proof that the Church is responsible for a shocking, widespread cover-up. 

As these events unfold, writer/director Tom McCarthy presents us with a realistic portrayal of investigative journalism. To his credit, the story isn’t embellished or sensationalised in any way. There are no car chases, shoot-outs or sex scenes. The film generates plenty of drama, but it does so without resorting to a series of shouty, melodramatic confrontations.

Admittedly, one of the main characters does unleash a righteous outburst towards the end of the film. But this scene feels earned – due to the grotesque nature of the crimes – and it is the only one of its kind. Most of the time, we watch the team as they gather information. If they aren’t chasing leads or talking to sources, they’re checking facts or compiling research. Indeed, one of the film’s key scenes involves a list of names and an Excel spreadsheet.

Crucially, though, none of this is remotely boring. In fact, Spotlight is utterly engrossing from start to finish, playing out as a detailed, serious-minded procedural. At the start of the film, some viewers might struggle to keep track of all the names and details that are being mentioned. But before long, everything becomes clear, and the film gathers momentum with every passing scene. On top of this, McCarthy never lets us forget that the stakes are extremely high.

 
It helps that he has assembled a superb ensemble cast, which also includes Mad Men’s John Slattery as one of the paper’s senior editors. Nobody really stands out, but you could argue that this is appropriate, since McCarthy is depicting a team effort. That said, Michael Keaton is reliably engaging as the team’s self-described “player-coach”, while Schreiber is enjoyably understated as The Globe’s incoming boss.

Some critics have described the film as bland and workmanlike, arguing that it isn’t particularly stylish or cinematic. But this argument is highly debatable, given that Spotlight doesn’t need flashy visuals or showy camera shots. What it does need, though, is subtlety, and that is exactly what McCarthy brings to the table.

He ensures that nothing distracts us from the story, directing the film in a subtle, inconspicuous manner. For the most part, his direction works because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. In many of the outdoor scenes, for example, churches are placed in the background of the shots, as if the Catholic Church – as an institution – is always watching.

Undoubtedly, though, the film’s biggest asset is the story that it is telling. Back in 2001, The Boston Globe found this story, and they decided to tell it in the right way. In 2015, McCarthy has done the same thing, resulting in a gripping, smartly crafted film that deserves to be seen. 

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Spotlight is released in cinemas on Friday 29 January