Spotlight is the true story of how the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered the worldwide cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. In 2001 the new editor Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, is appointed to head the team at the Globe. He initiates the investigation into the topic, requesting the release of documents that point towards the corruption and paedophilia committed by Catholic priests. It seems to suggest not only that sexual abuse has been going on for decades, if not centuries within the church, but that it has been known about by a huge cross-section of society and the story suppressed. The Spotlight team, a wing of the Boston Globe that specialises in long form investigative journalism, sometimes spending many months on one story to uncover the facts, is given the job of looking into these cases. The team of journalists, Sacha Pfieiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy), headed by Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), begin looking into widely varied accounts of sexual abuse by priests. Initially the numbers are low, seemingly isolated cases, out of court settlements, deals with the family’s affected. As they continue the search it becomes clear that what they are dealing with is not about single cases; it is a systemic problem, known about in the Catholic church at it’s highest levels, and deliberately suppressed across the world.
Despite the rigorously fact-checked research behind director Tom McCarthy’s film, it is not a film that is actually about the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. It is about the journalists that uncovered it. The stories of the people affected by the abuse, the psychological questions and explanations of the priests’ behaviour, and questions about how and why these events occurred are not the central focus. They appear filtered through the discoveries of the Spotlight team.
This is a central factor that divides the film. On the one hand you have a highly charged subject matter, that had and continues to have a huge emotional impact on all those that hear about it, and on the other you have the hectic, sometimes laborious, information saturated world of print journalism, and in one sense the two do not mix. The story is resolutely about the team and the style of the film reflects that. Camera movement and the language of cinema are kept to a stripped back minimum in the same way that a newspaper story is a functional and precise piece of prose. There is no real use of visual imagery to tell the story, it is told through the mass of spoken information with the camera seeming to document the action rather than to actively participate in the telling of the story. The cinematic style does fit the subject, but that style is inherently un-cinematic. It is the style of the written word, and by replicating the world of print media the film suffers from the same lack of meaning that journalistic writing and the environment around it can often suffer from.
Like the uncovering of all large stories there is a huge amount of personal narratives taking place at once, with the job of the journalist being to uncover and make sense of all these stories, navigating law suits, collecting and collating information and combining it with personal accounts. Spotlight shows this process in its many forms, following up a wide variety of different stories and splitting the narrative almost equally across the team’s four main members, with a limited background focus on Liev Schreiber’s taciturn but highly dedicated and moral head editor. This means the narrative shifts and jumps around, often cutting between stories as it tells these multiple narratives. Again, though accurate, this is not a technique that is particularly cinematic. Shifting characters can and does distance the audience, and this is the reason that many films are focused on one or two characters, as your identification and attachment to them are far stronger. But despite these moments and even with the mass of narratives and the complexity of the story, Spotlight still manages to be consistently engaging. But this is potentially due to the power of the subject matter, and to the quality of the performances, rather than to the directorial style.
In fact, for an Oscar nominated film that is predicted, by a number of people, to win the best picture award over The Revenant, there seem to be a number of problems with the more basic elements of story telling. One of the most noticeable of these is the lack of a cohesive geographical environment within the film. Boston is a fundamental part of the story; it is, as one character describes it, almost like a village in many ways, and the characters are connected to their city as to a local place. But for the audience, ignorant of Boston itself, there is no way to link up the places and become familiar with the city you are inhabiting. This seems like a minor point, but when you consider most films, regardless of the wide and various locations, will still have an anchor point and a familiarity with certain locations by the end of the film. In Spotlight the central office always seems set apart from the rest of the city and in one scene very late in the film the office itself is shown in the open, where before it can only have been presumed to be in a built up city environment. Moments like this, alongside a number of structural issues in terms of editing seem to point towards larger overall problems. And again at the heart of this is the way the story is told. To be faithful to the subject matter and the events the journalists experienced, seems to go alongside capturing the same loss of meaning. The journalists are dealing with large amounts of personal information, they are experiencing the bureaucracy of the church and the law courts, they are having to collate information from documents and piece together a story that is often removed from personal experience. In a sense they become like scientists or politicians; in order to do their job and do it well, they cannot be focused on the personal in the same way. Whether or not this was intended is ambiguous. McCarthy and the actors involved have stressed the importance of journalism in today’s society to keep powerful individuals in check, citing the Spotlight team as an example of the way the media can be one of the most powerful tools in a democratic society. Overall this does come across, but the way the story is told confuses this in many ways, actually seeming to stumble across the more complex nature of journalism and information in modern society.
At any other time of year, Spotlight would more than likely have been one of the standout films, notable for its great story and performances, and this should be stressed with a particular reference to Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, as well as a number of the smaller parts. It has been received by many in this way, but critical standards are raised around the time of the Oscar’s and the award season, with a far larger amount of scrutiny and analysis of the films being released and nominated. Spotlight definitely deserves recognition, if only for the story itself, but it does not use some of the strongest elements of the art of cinema and so in some ways fails to fulfil its full potential.
SPOTLIGHT is in UK cinemas 29 JANUARY