Straight stories: Tom McCarthy's Spotlight

29 January 2016

The performers are across-the-board faultless. Each actor comes complete with his or her own bodily mannerisms, which go some way in creating the film’s breathing, lived-in reality. It’s in the details.

Spotlight is a film about story. It’s about details and stitching them together: what to include, what not to include, where to place things and how. Its own thread-work is exemplary, its choice of detail confident. Here, narration is a matter of priority: not the voiceover kind, not the explanatory text kind, but the putting things in the right place kind. Putting things right: the oil on which robust engines run.

The fiction here is fact. In 2002, the Boston Globe published a series of articles exposing the systematic cover-up of child sex abuse by the city’s Catholic archdiocese — a scandal that catalysed whole waves of similar exposés and whose international aftershocks continue to ripple. The journalists responsible belonged to the newspaper’s famed Spotlight team, a four-person unit that began to amass its incriminating material in July 2001. The resulting output won the team a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

The investigation was an ensemble effort. In Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by him and Josh Singer, non-Catholic outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives as the Globe’s new editor on the back of recent personnel cuts and with speculation rife regarding further overhauls. Piqued by a recent column about Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer claiming that the local cardinal actively covered up paedophilia within his ranks, Baron encourages the paper’s Spotlight team to probe further.

The team itself comprises Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and, as their de facto head, Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton). Between Robinson and Baron is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), an editorial supervisor instinctively resistant to taking on a power as pervasive as the Catholic Church.

The Church’s cover-up went back decades. Spotlight opens in 1976. Two cops in Boston’s eleventh district anticipate the arrival of the Assistant D.A. and discuss the legal consequences awaiting Father Goeghan, a priest they have arrested on child molestation claims. When the Assistant D.A. arrives, we hear the local bishop assuring the victims’ mother that Geoghan will be removed from his parish and that it won’t happen again.

It’s a mysteriously brief prologue but everything’s already there. It’s there in the way one of the cops, much older and more experienced than the other, shruggingly speculates that Geoghan had been, quote-unquote, helping out the fatherless family in question and that it’s unlikely there’ll be an arraignment. It’s there in the Assistant D.A.’s order to keep the press at arm’s length. And it’s there in the bishop’s avuncular, priests-will-be-priests smile. Nothing about the scene suggests the arrest or molestation is aberrant: in Boston, Massachusetts, the Church has enjoyed a great deal of power over the socially and politically vulnerable.

Promoting old-fashioned journalism as the noblest of all anti-corruption crusades, Spotlight invites obvious comparisons to the likes of All the President’s Men and The Insider in its focus on the nuts and bolts of the profession. Victims are interviewed and records perused. Documents are sought and legal loopholes discovered. Facts are checked and checked again: the Spotlighters incur fury from one abuse victim for repeating, in the interests of clarity, everything he says back to him.

When the team discovers just how many priests might be involved in the scandal, the camera drifts back, slowly widening its composition and underlining the broadening scope of the investigation. The technique is repeated when Rezendes reads out documents that validate an earlier hunch. Cutting between the simultaneous individual efforts of the Spotlighters, the film boasts a real editorial sweep, a sense of things in constant motion (the main hook of Howard Shore’s musical score begins as early as the opening pre-film ident). From what else is a gripping yarn weaved?

Plenty. Spotlight is a newsroom thriller, a drama of gestures and chemistry. McCarthy, who appeared as hack journo Scott Templeton in the final season of The Wire, has brought a sense of collective on-screen brilliance from that series to his engrossing fifth feature as writer-director. His performers are across-the-board faultless. Each comes complete with his or her own bodily mannerisms, which go some way in creating the film’s breathing, lived-in reality. It’s in the details.

There’s Keaton, scrunching his eyes so he can read in dim lighting, or half-curtaining his face as he prepares to shatter through an abuse survivor’s post-traumatic shell. There’s Ruffalo reaching over his colleague’s desk for a pen, or perching on another with his thumbs sticking out of his pockets. There’s Tucci testing the heat of his soup, shaking his head at the gall of some people, or instinctively halting a conversation until passing policemen are beyond earshot. There’s Billy Crudup (as Eric MacLeish, another lawyer who settled many abuse cases), stifling an unprofessional outburst with a breath-depriving smirk. There’s Schrieber, as a man who’s so straight he’s queer, his frills-free approach to conversation rankling the Church and its apologists. And then there’s the most telling pinpoint detail of all: Paul Guilfoyle as Peter Conley, a man with political clout and the Church’s go-to fixer, barely able to maintain his teddy bear grin after realising he can’t solve a matter by simply leaning on a guy.

An edited version of this review was published here on 27 January 2016.