2016’s Best Picture Oscar winner is a well-executed, if rather old-fashioned, rendering of the real-life Boston Globe campaign to expose abusive Catholic priests. A top-notch cast does its’ best to breath life into a well-worn trope; crusading journalists chasing down an elusive story in the face of an institutional conspiracy of silence in the heavily Catholic ‘village’ that is Boston.
It’s a fine contemporary (2010-12) ensemble drama that feels like a 1970’s period piece in tone and style. Unfortunately the script never quite delivers on the promise of an All the President’s Men to become something altogether more pedestrian.
A decade after the Boston revelations, and in the full knowledge of the horrific scale of child abuse across the US and rest of the world, by priests continually moved from parish to parish, we know that the bold Spotlight feature team at the Globe is standing on the tip of a very large iceberg. Knowing the end-game significantly diminishes the impact of the story, so it all rests on the delivery and whether writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) can ratchet up the tension sufficiently to make the journey worthwhile.
And it’s a struggle. Despite the sinister Mafioso tactics of the senior clergy and PR people (including Paul Guilfoyle at his best), the conspiracy lacks any claws. There’s only silence and veiled threat. In the end it is Stanley Tucci’s (Jack the Giant Slayer, Hunger Games) scene-stealing lawyer for the victims who eventually hands the incriminating documents on a plate. It’s one of a number of ex-machina plot devices that pushes the journalists on when old fashioned door-knocking fails to secure the necessary proof from a succession of cowed and submissive victims and their families.
It’s one of a number of narrative problems with the script which begins promising threads but can’t followup. A key source, Spotlight’s Deep Throat, if you will, is an knowledgeable but questionable source, accepted at face value and remaining a disembodied voice on the phone.
Instead, the movie concentrates on the lasped Catholic Spotlight team of journalists, in particular Rachel McAdams (Time Travellers Wife, A Most Wanted Man), always watchable Mark Ruffalo (Avengers, Now You See Me) doing his shuffling, mumbling thing, and tough Michael Keaton (Birdman) as the Spotlight sub-ed duelling manfully with Guilfoyle’s PR bruiser. Playing much against type, Liev Schrieber is the incoming editor in chief, quietly spoken and resolute with, it seems, all the time in the world.
And here’s another problem, we’re now so used to news organisations competing and trying to scoop each other in a 24-hour news cycle, this kind of long-lead investigative journalism seems an anachronism. And do we really believe anymore in journalists with this surfeit of integrity? Even the shifty, cynical old hack played by John Slattery (Adjustment Bureau) turns out to have no other agendas, and we get one closing scene with the ensemble around a table beating themselves up for missing this story six years earlier.
The sense of nostalgia is overwhelming; Spotlight is shot with a matt finish that makes 2010 look like 1976; the team relies on the old-fashioned archives of clippings for research; the final publication scene is all about hot metal and conveyors and Boston Globe delivery trucks rolling onto the streets loaded with stacks of newsprint.
It’s all very earnest stuff that treats its’ material seriously and without any sensationalism – because it’s too important to take dramatic licence. But this means it can’t maintain any tension through it’s episodic structure, which repeatedly deflates to the level of an afternoon TV movie. The only time the movie raises it’s voice in indignation is with Ruffalo’s impassioned act three plea to publish and be damned, which is getting a little late in the day, and still the movie squanders the moment.
It is a proper grown up movie with a message about a serious subject, well-acted by a likeable cast, well delivered and in homage to the highest ideals of journalism. It just doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. RC
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Runtime: 129 minutes
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci, Paul Guilfoyle, John Slattery