As the Awards season rumbles on, yet another film nominated for all the major awards opened in the UK last week. However, this powerful film is one that deserves attention regardless of nominations, as it shines a light on a dark, unsettling, unimaginable, but sadly very real crime – one which must never be ignored again.
Spotlight is based on the true events that took place in Boston during 2001, when the Boston Globe newspaper’s specialist investigative team, Spotlight, began to investigate the circumstances surrounding a local Catholic priest accused of multiple cases of child abuse. A story previously given little attention by the paper, its new editor believes it is surely something worthy of closer scrutiny. What they initially think to be a dreadful isolated case becomes a far larger horror, with almost 90 priests in the Boston area uncovered as being potentially linked to abuse of children, some going back decades and across different parishes, with the added revelation that this was something the wider Catholic Church was not only aware of, but also covered up. Such incredible investigative journalism earned the Spotlight team a Pulitzer prize and now their story has been brought to the screen (a process in which the original team were fully involved).
It is a sad fact of today’s society that over the last decade since this discovery, the link between Catholic priests and child abuse is no longer a revelation to anyone. We all know it happened, even though it still seems hard to comprehend. However, it was through crucial events such as the work of Spotlight, that this dreadful truth was revealed. The events depicted on screen caused a domino effect as more and more victims came forward. Indeed one of the most powerful aspects of the film when a list of places worldwide in which similar abuse has since been uncovered is shown during the closing credits – it is three columns of locations, for three separate screen shots. The message is clear – this was not an isolated occurrence and is happening everywhere. It is certainly a chilling visual for the audience to take away with them.
I thought this was a superb film. It is engaging and engrossing and the tension is built gradually as the team’s discoveries grow and more and more evidence falls in to place. It’s a thrilling look at investigative journalism and the audience is with the team every step of the way, as they trawl through old church directories and conduct door to door interviews. Crucially, you like the team and admire them as individuals, especially as it becomes clear that the wider community is putting pressure on them to stop. The Church is a huge part of Boston and priests seen as a higher authority. Court documents disappear and people close ranks, emphasising the power of the Church is this very Catholic community. A scene in which Robby (Michael Keaton), Spotlight’s editor, is at his former Catholic school, facing pressure to “get on the same page” as the people now in charge, is a frightening reminder that any child could have been unknowingly at risk. The priest in question coached hockey. Maybe, Robby says, they are all lucky none of them picked the hockey team.
Scenes in which Rachel McAdams goes house to house asking questions and is confronted by an elderly former priest who freely admits his actions, but thinks there is nothing wrong with them, as he got no personal pleasure from it, is only made more chilling by how normal he appears and also be the fact that a few houses down there is a school, with children coming and going. Rachel McAdams wonderfully conveys the horror of the possibilities without uttering a word.
This is indeed a superbly acted film. One of its greatest assets is the strength of its ensemble cast, anchored by the performances of the Spotlight team of Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and Mark Ruffalo. Each plays a very different personality, but together they are a strong unit, conveying the commitment and passion with which these individuals carried out their work over so long (the origianl story broke in the paper in January 2002). Like many critics (and indeed awards voters) I was particularly impressed by Mark Ruffalo. Playing reporter Mike Rezendes, he is horrified by the revelations and is relentless in his pursuit of the evidence. The scenes in which he doggedly tracks down court documents are quite thrilling and as his anger grows, you feel it too, as it’s exactly how you feel yourself.
There are also strong performances from Stanley Tucci who plays the Armenian lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, determined to bring these claims to trial and Liev Schreiber as the paper’s new editor, an outsider to the area and also, as a Jewish man, someone able to have a more objective view on the Catholic Church. He seems surprised the case that starts the investigation wasn’t given more attention locally. It soon seems apparent that deep down no one in this heavily religious community really wanted to think about what could be happening, which is highlighted by neither him nor Tucci’s Garabedian being Catholic.
What also impressed me was how un-Hollywood the film is, for which praise must go to its screenwriters Tom McCarthy (also directing) and Josh Singer. The subject matter needed to be handled sensitively and clearly they have put a great deal of thought in to how to make a commercial, engaging film, which audiences can sit through, without sensationalising the events. There are no explicit scenes of what victims suffered and no lengthy scenes in which we hear the experiences of any one victim. The filmmakers treat the audience with intelligence – we know what is being spoken of without them needing to resort to scenes which would have felt sensational and unnecessary. Instead the focus is on the challenges Spotlight faced in bringing the evidence together in way which would be irrefutable by the Church.
I was hugely impressed by Spotlight and it is a very worthy contender for Best Picture this year. More importantly, it is a vital film in bringing such an important story to the wider film-going public. It’s true that this isn’t an easy subject to hear about, but as the film makes very clear, ignorance and looking the other way went on for far too long. Everyone should see this film. I certainly won’t forget it.
Spotlight is on general release in UK cinemas. View the trailer here.