Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win), Spotlight follows a team of reporters at The Boston Globe who, in 2001, launched a dogged investigation into the misdeeds covered up by the Catholic Church. They were eventually able to out nearly 90 Boston-area priests as molesters and exposed a pattern of corruption at the church where the higher-ups privy to the scandal would effectively silence any accusers who came forward.
How much drama can you take out of a story and still have a story to tell? By the explosion-heavy standards of today’s Hollywood, writer/director Todd McCarthy’s Spotlight – which follows the real-life 2001 investigation by the Boston Globe into the Catholic Church’s protection of paedophile priests – is as close to drama-free as it gets. But this smart, subtle film’s low-key approach is a vital part of what it’s trying to say: the people trying to cover up this evil went out of their way to stifle any trace of drama, because they knew drama would bring attention. In the end, that attention is what brought them down.
When the paper’s new editor-in-chief, out-of-towner Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), suggests the investigative unit (known as Spotlight) take a look at paedophile priests, supervising editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is dismissive. The story’s been covered, the victims are cranks, and his team - Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) - have better stories to run down. But Baron pushes, and with staff cuts looming going against the boss isn’t a smart idea. So they get to work, and much of what follows is simply following journalists around as they do their job, whether it’s going through archives in a pre-online age, pushing sources (including Stanley Tucci as a colourful lawyer who’s understandably protective of his church-suing clients) to talk, or persuading the people upstairs that the real story is still around the corner.
In a traditional thriller the threats (and bullets) would fly as they drew closer to the truth; here the pressure brought to bear on the Spotlight team is much more low-key. The avuncular Bishop of Boston (Len Cariou) tells Baron that the city works best when the church and paper work together, while various bigwigs suggest to Robbie over golf that there’s no story to be told. The reporters’ own Catholic upbringing makes their job a difficult one, and strong performances across the board go a long way towards making their internal conflicts a major source of tension. With the story’s result already known, much of the suspense comes from seeing the characters’ slowly dawning realisation of just how big this story is; the matter-of-fact way the pieces of the puzzle come together (one former priest sees nothing wrong in his crimes, as he “took no pleasure in the act”) only reinforces the horror of what they’re uncovering.
Spotlight is also a note-perfect look at how journalism works, getting the mix of long waits, brief adrenaline rushes, and a complete lack of glamour spot-on. The Spotlight team aren’t moral crusaders; at one stage it’s pointed out that they had all the pieces of the story years earlier but never bothered putting them together. They’re just fallible people doing an often frustrating job that – this time – pays off. There may have been ways to turn this investigation into a more traditionally dramatic film (there isn’t a single car bomb or death threat in sight), but it’s to McCarthy’s credit that he avoids flashy visuals or manufactured suspence in telling this story. Sometimes the best way to have an impact isn’t to draw attention to yourself, but to simply put your head down and do the basics.