Towards the end of Spotlight, Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing 80 victims of child abuse in the Catholic Church tells a reporter, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”
Equal parts taut procedural and social issues drama, Spotlight takes an understated, unglamorous look at the forces, social and institutional, that allowed an unimaginable crime to go unpunished for decades.
The story follows the ‘spotlight’ investigative wing of the Boston Globe newspaper in 2001. Garabedian (an exquisitely grumpy Stanley Tucci) has publicly claimed senior members of the Church not only knew about widespread abuse, but protected and moved the perpetrators. New Globe Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) sends the team to investigate, and, slowly, they come to realise it’s much worse than anyone thought.
Historical dramas like this have very little scope to genuinely surprise you – you know the allegations are true, and so the pleasure of the film is watching how our heroes go about revealing that truth. As such, Spotlight is a love letter to the journalistic process, and nothing is permitted to distract from that for long.
Tom McCarthy’s unfussy direction works in muted greys, blues and browns, and the film takes place largely in fluorescent-lit offices, libraries, courtrooms and archives. It is scored as much by phones, faxes and office chatter as it is by music. One of its more cinematic and visually striking moments is a montage of tired reporters scanning through various documents.
There are drawbacks to this narrowed approach. The reporters and editors of the globe are less characters than mechanisms to drive the plot. They are defined by their work, have no friends save each other and while references are made to family, they are conspicuous by their absence, even in the reporters’ homes; when the film does try to explore its characters inner selves, these moments fall flat. A conversation late in the piece between Mike Revendes’(played with a hunched, clipped intensity by Mark Ruffalo) and Sasha Pfeiffer (an oddly colourless Rachel McAdams) about his disillusionment with the Church feels less like important character development, and more that the screenwriters had to check the box marked ‘emotional conversation’, but perhaps that’s the point – our protagonists are dwarfed by the story and the scandal they reveal.
A recurring theme of the film is community-wide complicity necessary for a scandal of that magnitude to continue as long as it did. The numbers of perpetrators and victims are truly breathtaking, and it could only spread as it did with the silence of the police, lawyers, courts, even friends of the victims. The press too, whom we see are far from blameless. Late on, when spotlight leader Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton, the film’s stand-out performance) confronts a lawyer who defended scores of paedophile priests in private settlements, ensuring that the scandal remained hidden, the lawyer protests he was just doing his job.
“Yeah, you and everyone else,” Robinson replies.
To its credit, the film stops short of treating its conclusion as a victory. The reporters are given a brief moment of satisfaction, before silently acknowledging how much work remains.
We only touch on what the abuse and betrayal did to its victims. This, on reflection, is correct. How could the film possible do that justice? Instead, Spotlight grippingly focuses on the small band of dedicated, unhysterical professionals who saw what was happening, and thought we deserved to know.