Spotlight might be the ugliest film of 2015. It’s so wrapped up in its own aesthetic of reality—washed out faces that blend in with pale, drab wallpaper, garish orange furniture clashing with a painfully ordinary office—that you might cry foul that it’s meant for the big screen at all. Yet Tom McCarthy, the visionary director behind The Station Agent and Win Win (and co-writer of Up) did not make these decisions lightly. In a film meant to put the focus on one of the worst crimes in human civilization, it’s the contrast of everyday life with horrific revelation that gives Spotlight its power.
In fact, that home video quality is itself deceptive. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi never strays from Tom McCarthy’s vision, but still manages to sneak in clever visual moments. In one scene, successive shots show characters descending stairs in one building, ascending stairs in another and descending again in a third. Each of these moments is roughly matched on action; the transition offers a sense of monotonous continuity, but also an urgent push forward in a world not yet tuned in to the big story.
The characters in Spotlight are burdened with this lonely sense of purpose. The busy streets of Boston never stop to give way to the stars as we often see in Hollywood pictures. The Boston Globe reporters know the story they’re investigating might be one of the biggest scandals in recent memory, but they hustle and bustle around a living metropolis that doesn’t seem to care what our leads do one way or the other. That is, until the news gets out.
Here again is a story of journalists doing what they are meant to: pull threads. Only this time, they’re tugging the frocks of priests in a city utterly devoted to preserving its sense of Catholic heritage. The moment Robby (Michael Keaton) starts to ask questions of his friends and even his higher-ups at the Globe, they close rank. No one—lawyers and high school administrators included—are willing to stir the pot if it means implicating the Catholic Church. Worse still, they try to knock Robby off the trail with townie guilt. “This is Boston, Robby,” they croon, as if speaking up about child abuse is a rejection of his past, his friends and his family.
Mike (a jittery Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha (a fearless, earnest Rachel McAdams) speak with victims of the priesthood in truly heartbreaking segments. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer make an interesting decision to focus not only on poorly adjusted straight victims in these moments, but gay victims, too. A lump formed in my throat as Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton) tells Sacha how “confusing” it was to be introduced to sex at so young an age. Creighton’s body language and quavering voice immediately convey terror, implying years of substance abuse and shame as a result of molestation that complicated an already difficult youth. It’s a perspective I wasn’t expecting but it definitely broadens the scope of damage.
Leaving these explicit interviews, Mike and Sacha reenter the real world once again. It’s jarring to jump from intense emotional beats back to the slow burn of an investigation. Knowing the Church is preying on the community is as difficult to swallow for the characters as it was for me to watch. Both Sacha and Matt (Brian d’Arcy James) start to crack as the stress and secrecy of the story becomes too much for them. Meanwhile Mike’s frustration at the injustice starts to spill out onto his colleagues, and Robby’s disillusionment with old friends and classmates causes him to rethink his affection for Boston entirely.
If Spotlight stumbles, it’s in taking this frustration too far. The glacial pace of the Globe’s exposé as they drags these priests and their accomplices out of the shadows is a case study in tension building. Yet at least twice in the film I shook my head at Robby and his team’s progress. For example, the team looks to the official records of priests in local parishes to validate the stories of their interviewees. It’s not until at least two scenes later that Robby suggests doing the reverse: look up priests who jumped from church to church more frequently, then use that list of names as a starting point to ask questions. It’s an obvious move, but why drag it out? McCarthy plays it like a eureka moment when the drama isn’t there to support it.
Yet Spotlight does the real world narrative a certain justice. There have been claims (and counter–claims) of factual inaccuracy, but the humanity of the story remains intact. What we saw in Boston and in Catholic communities around the world was cronyism at its worst (a phenomenon hardly unique to Catholicism). No priest saw a court room for decades because the officials were all about doing what was “best” for the community. The cold truth, of course, is that it’s the community itself that suffered.
That is McCarthy’s message. It wasn’t the rich who suffered in this, or the powerful. It was the poor, for whom religion was everything and for whom social status was imbued by figures like priests and cardinals. Those are the people no one was looking out for. It took a few journalists under the leadership of a steely-gazed foreigner to Boston, editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), to become pariahs in a face-off with the most influential organization in the area.
And even then, for some of the victims, it was 10, 20, 30 years too late.
Movie Verdict: Win