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Non-Review Review: Spotlight

Nominally, Spotlight is about the exposé that ran in the Boston Globe identifying dozens of paedophile priests who had been shuffled around Boston parishes and the corrupt institution that sheltered them. Thomas McCarthy’s film never shies away from the horror stories told by the survivors of such institutional abuse, nor does it ignore the systems that were complicit in perpetuating and covering up that abuse. Running just over two hours, McCarthy’s film is meticulous and painstaking as it sorts through all the leads and follows the unravelling thread.

However, Spotlight is also about something bigger. It is a story about institutional structures as they exist, and how those structures are primarily motivated to protect themselves. The big reveal in Spotlight is not that the abuse is taking place, it is just how many people tried in how many different ways to expose that abuse to the cold light of day. The Catholic Church might be the most significant institution involved in the cover-up, but Spotlight suggests that the structures of Boston (and implicitly all over the globe) failed the people who needed them most.

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Spotlight is a powerful film. McCarthy is not the most dynamic or exciting of directors, but his matter-of-fact presentation style suits the material perfectly. Towards the end of the film, journalist Matt Carroll jokes that he has started working on a horror novel to distract himself from the particulars of the case. Spotlight is very much a horror story, but a horror story where the discomfort is tied to the sheer inevitability. McCarthy’s camera is always definite and steady; a slow pan or zoom confirms what the audience already suspects, and is all the more effective for it.

McCarthy has assembled a fantastic cast, including John Slattery as Ben Bradley Junior. Bradley is the son of Benjamin Bradley Senior, the executive editor at The Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate coverage and who was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. This creates a nice thread of real-life continuity for Spotlight, cementing its pedigree. McCarthy’s journalism epic is powerful stuff, and perhaps the most compelling endorsement of long-form investigative journalism to appear on screen in quite some time.

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There is no small irony in the fact that Tom McCarthy should be the one to offer such a powerful and insightful ode to the journalistic process. McCarthy is a man of many talents, having worked both in front and behind the camera. One of his most memorable on-screen roles was that of Scott Templeton in the final season of The Wire, a hack unwilling to let journalistic integrity get in the way of a good story. Spotlight offers the antithesis of this approach, following a team of writers as they unravel a sex abuse scandal that would shake Boston to its core.

There are certain sections of Spotlight that conform to expectations in a story like this. As cliché as a montage might be, it remains an effective way to convey the shoulder-to-the-millstone boots-on-the-ground process of carefully and painstakingly researching and referencing a story. Howard Shore provides powerful emotive music to play over shots of file folders and library reference cards, interviews in cafés and knocks on doors. Spotlight is almost as painstaking in its documenting of the process as the eponymous team was in putting their case together in the first place.

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There are points at which this clear and meticulous structure threatens to drown out the character work. There are points where it seems like McCarthy almost pauses the inevitable march of the drama so as to afford his phenomenal cast room to breath. This is a gigantic machine at work, and it seems to take all the effort in the world to slow it down so as to allow Mark Ruffalo or Michael Keaton their big emotive moments. In the context of the film’s otherwise mechanical rhythm, these beats feel almost distracting.

The best moments in Spotlight come when the cast move with the churn of the story and roll with the revelations. McCarthy has drawn together a phenomenal cast, all of whom give really great performances. Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci are absolutely spellbinding, finding their strongest character moments in engaging with the process rather than reacting against it. The script to Spotlight is populated with archetypes; actors like Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, and John Slattery turn those archetypes into characters.

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Spotlight is very much about systems and structures. McCarthy’s camera treats the city of Boston itself as a character in the drama, as if its geography is but a physical expression of this deep-seated trauma. Much is made of the city’s networks and connections, whether those exist through formalised structures or pure coincidence. A conversation with an abuse survivor seems drawn towards a playground and a church. A site of abuse sits across the road from the headquarters of the Boston Globe. Reporter Michael Rezendes passes a victim in his taxi on a way to the office.

In the film’s opening scene, Walter “Robby” Robinson cracks wise about the corner office at the headquarters of the Boston Globe – a prime piece of real estate that symbolises the seat of power within the city’s venerable institution. In the film’s final sequence, there is a camera pan across the newspaper’s sea of cubicles that settles on the corner office housing new editor Marty Baron. The focus is as much on the office itself as on the occupant who sits within it. At several points in the film, churches loom large over the Boston skyline, their own structures of power.

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“If it takes a village to raise a child,” suggests Armenian lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, “you can be damn sure that it takes a village to abuse a child.” Power structures exist to buttress and reinforce each other. Meeting with the new editor of the Boston Globe, Cardinal Bernard Francis Law suggests, “Our city thrives when its great institutions work together.” It seems that those institutions have been working together for quite some time. The conspiracy of silence extends beyond the church to school boards and charity galas and city court houses.

Much is made of the importance of outsiders in challenging those institutional structures, in questioning the way that the organs of governance (whether local or international) conspire to protect themselves. Initial gossip seems to suggest that Marty Baron has targeted the Catholic Church in Boston because he is a Jew from Florida; perhaps it is only his status as an outsider that allows him to make such a challenge. Mitchell Garabedian suggests that the same is true of his own status as an Armenian and Michael Rezendes’ Portuguese background.

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In contrast, the social networks guard themselves. When Walter Robinson is introduced, joking reference is made to his “seniority.” He grew up around Boston. It is suggested that part of his successful stewardship of the Spotlight team comes from his local knowledge, his understanding of the city. “The Spotlight team have been very successful at picking their own stories,” Bradley advises Baron at one meeting about the direction of the investigation. However, despite (or perhaps because) of his access, Robinson finds himself stonewalled in a way Rezendes is not.

Spotlight is a very slick and very efficient film. McCarthy knows that he has a powerful story here, and a phenomenal cast. The film looks and sounds superb, all the more effective for McCarthy’s clean and unobtrusive style. Much like All the President’s Men before it, it never feels like Spotlight is embellishing or exaggerating. There is a clarity and purity to the film that only makes it all the more powerful and moving.  Really superb stuff.

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2 Responses

  1. Well blogged, Darren! “Purity”, that’s the word! Neat storytelling struck me too!

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