Midway through Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s dramatised retelling of the scandal of pedophile priests and the establishment cover up brought to light by The Boston Globe in 2002, Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron goes to visit Cardinal Law. The former has just recently become editor of the paper; the latter is the Archbishop of Boston. Law (played by Len Cariou) hands Baron a gift, a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If you were wondering, the second line of the prologue of that austere volume reads “God our Saviour desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The truth which that book has in mind is very different from the one which is painstakingly uncovered over Spotlight’s 129 minute running length. One of the film’s many strengths is the way in which major ideas – of truth and justice, of family and belonging – are woven so expertly into its unrelenting story that one hardly notices them until it becomes apparent they are everywhere, like the church spires which loom over our protagonists as they knock on doors and pore through records in their grim hunt.
It’s a story articulated by a uniformly excellent cast. The standout is Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, with his hands glued to the insides of his pockets in a parodic nod to casualness from a character whose single-minded drive is present in every tendon as he alternates between true-journalist doggedness and bursts of righteousness. Alongside him Rachel McAdams brings a steely sympathy to her turn as Sacha Pfeiffer; the wordless scene as she sits opposite her devout Catholic grandmother, who raises pleading eyes as she reads over the final story, is a masterclass in how to show love dancing on the head of a pin. The aforementioned Schreiber is a dryly understated foil to the world-wearied Michael Keaton’s Walter ‘Robbie’ Robertson, head of the Spotlight team.
The minor players, too, populate the film with all the self-denied pain that make this not just a landmark instance of speaking truth to power but as convincing an example as one could need of the vitality of simply having one’s story told. It’s to McCarthy’s credit that he never makes this a black and white issue, that he injects at least a drop of pathos into every instance where a lesser filmmaker might have gone for the easy outrage.
McCarthy also makes a virtue of an almost absent form of directing. This is solid, plodding, methodical reportage (as every commentator has noted comparisons with the removed style of All the President’s Men abound, and there’s even a mysterious Deepthroat-esque voice at play here too), knocking on doors and sitting at desks. The camera knows what it should be looking at, cutting from face to face until each has said their piece. When it does pull back it’s to frame characters against houses and streets, punctually reminding the viewer of the city that so badly needs this truth like a shot in the arm. It takes a certain degree of courage and trust to shoot a film like this; trust that you have a story worth telling, and that you can tell it right.
And they do, and can. Spotlight never drags, never feels confused, never lets itself get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the suffering which it slots together like a jigsaw. The writing is tight and the performers do it justice. The film is flat, but flat like a page; it’s meant to be read top to bottom.
Spotlight ranks as not only one of the best newspaper films of all time, but as an exceptionally fine thriller which draws its drama not from fantastic reveals but from the terrible goosebumps of realisation – a far harder task to pull off – and from the wonderful interplay of its ensemble cast. Perhaps the greatest praise that can be given this film is that it almost exactly contains the line ‘this could go all the way to the top’ and one hardly even notices, but it’s concerned not just with the heights but with the roots too, and that’s what will make it last. 4/5