Spotlight is in Australian cinemas now, and was #4 on my Best Films of 2015.
“I find that this city flourishes when its great institutions work together.”
“Personally, I’m of the opinion that for the paper to best perform its function it needs to stand alone.”
In 2001, the Boston Globe wasn’t standing alone. It was in an environment where accountability was impossible, and a problem was festering behind doors, in offices and homes, hidden from the human eye and silenced by much more powerful forces.
The forces were so powerful, in fact, that they brought an entire city into submission. Journalistic integrity disappeared, justice failed, systems made to bring justice to the wronged were held in a chokehold. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is not about the victims. It doesn’t engage in histrionics, imagined melodramatic backstories, and doesn’t have its protagonists be personally connected to what’s happening. Rather, it focuses on those who were meant to hold the wrongdoers accountable, but through a culture of institutional silencing, fell victim to their own blindness. The result is a remarkably well constructed film, one that is both an angry and clear eyed look at a fragile ecosystem on the brink of collapse.
McCarthy does this by keeping us at arm’s length. Him and his co-writer Josh Singer open with the film’s only flashback. However, it’s not one coloured by the specific point of view of a character, and we never return to the stories of those involved here – we are simply a fly-on-the-wall in a Boston police station in 1976. We observe as policemen shrug, clueless, and watch a Bishop console a mother while her two children sit with colouring books, oblivious to what’s going on around them. Young, yet already silenced and complicit. The camera (and the audience) quickly leaves closing the audience out of the conversation, and a policeman watches the Bishop leave. No questioning, no follow up. Just settled in a locked room in the middle of the night.
Twenty-five years later, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), arrives at another one of Boston’s institutions – The Globe newspaper. He’s a rare outsider in the rigid ecosystem that is the city – as editor Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) says of the new editor that he’s “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball”. In other words, from another planet. After all, Boston is about Catholic families and the Red Sox. The Globe is as much a part of the furniture as indeed the Catholic Church and the famed baseball team, the employees Boston born-and-bred. It would appear to the human eye that Boston, with its sworn allegiances and strong city bonds, is a city that is unbreakable. However, as another outsider, lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says later in the film, “it takes an outsider”. An outsider to see the cracks and the shortcomings in the system, to realise that Boston’s ecosystem is not unbreakable, but rather on the verge of collapse as a result of a culture of evil.
Just like the routine silencing McCarthy introduces in the first scene of the film, the ongoing issue of sex abuse towards the city’s children from the high-ranking priests is something that is routinely ignored by both the city and The Globe. At the first meeting, Marty mentions the topic, last covered in a small column that is buried in the depths of the paper. He’s met with shrugs and rebuttals of “we reported on him”, including from the Spotlight team comprised of Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). McCarthy looks upon their line of work with a slightly nostalgic mind – the internet is starting to threaten their futures, but they’re still in the business of thoughtful, nuts-and-bolts journalism. Spotlight is said to be comprised of the best journalists in the business, investing time in searching for potential stories and following them through. But despite their supposed talent in their field (and, as we see, they are very good at their jobs), they have ignored a world-altering revelation sitting at their feet for years.
Aaron Sorkin dealt with the greatness and responsibility of the Fourth Estate in his much loved but equally maligned television drama The Newsroom, but that was through a lens of pop culture references, romance, and Coldplay songs. Some, including myself, didn’t mind the melodrama, the screwball moments where conversations occurred at such an alarming rate that they were as thrilling as when the team were racing against the clock to get a story out because it’s the age of the internet, dammit! Information is power! The people must be informed! Reddit must be stopped for the sake of truth and responsible reporting!
But Sorkin highlighted the plight of his sector of “the media elite” (his words, spoken by Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy when apologizing for the previously sensationalist News Night) with exclamation points and maxims, emotional manipulation and countless references to everything from Don Quixote to Bob Dylan. They were noblemen, albeit flawed crusaders of truth and necessary education to an oblivious public; but nonetheless heroic beings existing above society.
But in Spotlight, there is no Reddit or Coldplay or romance. It doesn’t possess the rapid –fire and occasionally overbearingly sentimental Sorkinese. There is no banter about Annie, Get Your Gun, or on-again-off-again romances that are played out in between news bulletins. We are constantly reminded that Spotlight is not based on fiction, rather it’s based on the 2001 investigation by the titular investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize. We are not in a made up universe, these are not imagined situations or figures intended to overstate. We’re also in a time before the internet drove speed and freedom of information up and attention spans down. Paper, pens, and speech are the tools of success here, and no party is immune to ignorance. The journalists are just as much at fault as the public, because they are part of the problem.
Because we learn Boston is indeed an environment where accountability has been made impossible, and it’s a startling realisation that McCarthy reveals to his audience as his characters learn just how broken the system they’d placed their faith in is. It’s a slow burning revelation and the full gravity is not immediately realised. Initially, Boston looks as unified as it is known to be, a character says that it is “still a small town”. Characters, and the audience as a result, are distant to the case at first, as the perspective isn’t placed with the victims. Lawyers and journalists play golf together, working in close partnership. But then, when Spotlight starts digging, and their return to supposed friends is met with cold tones, the depth of the problem suddenly becomes apparent, and every previous interaction suddenly takes on a different light. The team become more personally intertwined with the case, becoming angry at both themselves and the church, a slowly changing tone that McCarthy weaves into his screenplay to create a gradual emotional payoff.
It’s indeed a fragile ecosystem masquerading as a strong one. It is said to flourish when its institutions – church, state, and the press – work together. But as the Spotlight team continue to delve deeper into the crisis, it appears strong because it turns a blind eye. It appears to work when everyone is complicit to the church’s wishes, no questioning, no investigation, just blind submission to the invisible hand. The hand of the church has such an ingrained influence that no one considers otherwise, not a second thought given to the fact that lawyers openly say that they “deal directly with the church”.
Spotlight favours anger and frustration over idealism. Once the journalists’s own hand in the events is revealed and they begin to realise just how entrenched the Church’s influence is in their lives, the Boston they thought was unbreakable turns out to be crumbling before their eyes. McCarthy and Singer’s screenplay, which is sharp, efficient, and focuses purely on the discovery at hand rather than becoming embroiled in melodrama, frames this through a series of events that are understated, which only give what they reveal more power, and simply convey the Spotlight team’s gradual personal investment in their investigation. It doesn’t rely on grand statements, rather the simple truths are the most powerful. It’s as understated as McCarthy’s direction, which has been dismissed as unremarkable, but is rather a fantastic exercise in restraint. Just like the photography from Masanobu Takayanagi and editing from Tom McArdle, which creates sublime relationships between characters and the places they thought they knew and keeps the film unfolding at an accelerating pace, its mastery is in the seemingly small elements of the story. As relationships start to crumble, characters start to be confined more by their surroundings. The church spires seem to loom more in the background, the streets become empty, the camera starts to act more as another barrier in addition to a door or window. In fact, one of the most riveting and powerful moments of the film is indeed as banal as opening a document folder to see that it’s empty, that the Catholic Church is indeed stopping the process of justice in Boston. It’s a scene without dialogue or dramatic music, yet its impact couldn’t be more world-shattering.
Indeed, Spotlight is a film of greater understatement than audiences are familiar with. It’s the type of film that best works when characters and indeed performances, as well as the visuals, exist in equilibrium, instead of one standing out, and Tom McCarthy excels at this level of powerful simplicity, keeping the film tight and emotions buried until they reach a boiling point, not engaging in tear-jerking techniques. Spotlight is not a film of melodrama or rushed conclusions intended to keep its audience engaged through dramatics, rather it creates a slowly building sense of tension that keeps the film unfolding at an impeccable pace for its two hour running time.
But McCarthy’s true masterstroke in Spotlight is quite possibly realising that the full story of the loss and injustice is something that can’t be conveyed in a vacuum such as a film. As the inevitable report goes to print, you realise that this is only just the beginning of what is to come. McCarthy’s film is the first step, the ominous colours and wide shots showing the solitude of the team discovering something that they gradually realise is far bigger than Boston, that is going to change the world. The world is continually distracted by other tragic events and losses of human life to see the silent killer spreading through their world. Spotlight is the calm before the storm, the storm that brought the rest of the world to its knees.