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Spotlight review: simple, powerful investigative thriller

January 27, 2016

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Dominic Preston

Spotlight Mark Ruffalo Michael Keaton

There’s a quiet power to Spotlight, an investigative journalism thriller that has the confidence to ditch the melodrama, step back and just let its story do the hard work.

Under the influence of a new editor, in 2001 The Boston Globe began a lengthy investigation into allegations that the Catholic Church had covered up sex abuse committed by priests in the Boston area, even allowing the priests to continue to serve in other parishes. It’s the sort of scandal that’s almost old hat to the Church in 2016, but the sheer scale of the cover-up remains breathtaking.

To help avoid the sense that we’ve heard this all before, Spotlight makes much of the Boston setting, emphasising the special significance of taking on Catholicism in a city still dominated by the ancestors of Irish immigrants. The Church is deeply embedded in local culture, and it takes an outsider (and a Jew) in new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to spot the rot.

Director Tom McCarthy adopts a minimalist approach throughout, refraining from flashy visuals or editing tricks, giving away his confidence in the script and cast. Melodrama is kept to a minimum too – there’s no dramatic reveal that one of the reporters was themselves abused or on-the-nose speeches about the Power of Journalism (as plagues this year’s other high profile investigative journalism thriller, Truth).

Spotlight Mark Ruffalo Michael Keaton Rachel McAdams

In stepping back himself, McCarthy gives his actors room to breathe, and they make the most of it. Mark Ruffalo gives the most ostentatious performance of the lot, a thick Boston drawl backed up by physical tics and slumped shoulders that see him shrug his way through scenes. Amy McAdams and Michael Keaton both impress as fellow members of the Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ investigative team, the latter selling the weary pragmatism of the group’s leader, burdened with the weight of responsibility.

Resident scene-stealer Stanley Tucci is on hand as the low-rent attorney who’s taken up the abuse victims’ case, a gruff, blustery exterior slowly giving way to genuine conviction. A fellow immigrant to the city, his presence echoes the theme of Boston’s small-town nature. A fiercely insular city, it protects its own – and its own ways – outsiders given the choice to either sign up, or get out. Here Boston itself becomes an echo of the Church, an ecosystem that’s gradually evolved to brook no conflict or objection, to pressure whistleblowers into silence for the greater good.

It goes without saying that child abuse, especially within the Church, is a sensitive subject, and McCarthy delicately treads around it. We never see abuse, nor even hear from children, though adult victims are given a voice to discuss their trauma. It’s not just the moment of the act that’s traumatic, but the long-term impact on mental health, on attitudes to sex and religion, even the complex interplay with sexual orientation. Some may object that Spotlight shies away from presenting abuse in its full horror, taking a sanitised approach, but in truth it’s because abuse itself isn’t the film’s interest – its relation to religion, to power complexes, to society as a whole are what McCarthy’s and Josh Singer’s script is engaged with.

The result is that Spotlight can feel mild-mannered, sacrificing some of its tension conflict for the sake of a more low-key exploration of its ideas. But in that it stands out as one of the more thoughtful entries in the journalism thriller sub genre, where painstaking research and bickering bureaucrats have a larger role to play than clandestine meetings and subterfuge. It’s pensive, but it pays off.

Words by Dominic Preston