Spotlight on Spotlight

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“A grown up film. Very grown up, indeed.” Muses Andrew Marr at the end of this preview screening of Spotlight. Readership lost, let’s move on to the film… Considering Spotlight stars Birdman via Batman, the resurgent Michael Keaton and The Avengers’ Mark Ruffalo, these superheroes are not cartoonish caricatures. Keaton does not walk through Times Square in his undies. Ruffalo is not big and green. Mind you, he does look likely to pop out of his little leather jacket from time to time.

Spotlight is the Based On Actual Events (another one, yes) retelling of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. The Spotlight team are the investigative arm of the paper that sees tripartite leads in Keaton, Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. Theirs is a world of basement archives, nascent internet, folding mobile phones and caffeinated high stress. But most importantly, integrity and dedication to the cause.

This is a world to appreciate. The power of the press. There are no Murdoch media moguls. Printers whirr. Subscribers exist. Articles matter. It is anathema to the tab culture that drives today’s dilettante despair. Director Tom McCarthy affectionately draws a realistic landscape with little narrative embellishment, allowing the facts to drive the plot. The problem is where this plot leads.

We live in the aftermath of Operation Yewtree and the abuses scandal within the Catholic Church. They register, but as a footnote of agony, locked deep within our collective consciousness. A horror buried. Spotlight’s search starts with an isolated case: a ‘bad apple’ pedophile priest. An exception. What transpires is a ‘recognisable psychiatric phenomenon’ that includes up to 6% of priests. Boston has 1,500. The team estimate 90 abusers. They find 87 suspects. Through victims, they reveal evidence for 70 cases.

The shrouding of the truth is a systemic evil incorporating the clergy, the judiciary and the whole of Boston’s big village. The trail leads to the highest authority, Cardinal Law. But this is no Calvary style witch hunt. Or Smithsian parody sliding down the banister. Instead, McCarthy displays the trauma of a community tragedy. The three leads lend the film ample space to explore the catastrophe before the catharsis as the Globe’s investigation risks ripping Boston apart.

Stanley Tucci’s elusive attorney, Garabedian precipitates the film’s major thematic exploration of the external and internal within a community. The premise is that Garabedian is Armenian, therefore he can see beyond the institutionalised conspiracy of Boston’s opaque authority: a Church/judicial pact of omerta that smothers dissenters. Being ‘not from Boston’ might sound a tenuous theme, but the film follows this thread of alien identity to great effect.

Ruffalo’s character, Michael Rezendes, is of Portuguese descent. New editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is Jewish, making a mockery of the Catholic attempts at catechism. Rachel McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer is from Ohio. Hardly exotic, but external nonetheless, giving each an immunity to the church’s shrouding of the truth. They remain strangers to Boston and have an element of objectivity through distance. Meanwhile, Spotlight editor Robby (Keaton) is deeply entrenched within the system having grown up, studied and lived in the city throughout his life. As an alumnus of the local college, an editor of the local paper and a popular figure on the rolling rota of public engagements, he has a parochial, protectionist perspective biased by this background.

The race to press becomes a battle of competing interests as the Boston authority (Church) seek to close down the investigations through the apparently easy prey of someone internal. Within the system. Someone so steeped in the values and ethical practices as Robby must surely defend the reputation of his closed community. Close ranks. Stop press. The crisis is writ on the wrinkles of Keaton’s face. It becomes existential to the entire investigation and the result in the end is definitively personal. Robby defeats the internal filter and the external wins out. The story is released.

The victory is a triumph for journalism. But the film cannot afford triumphalism, it deals with delicate material. Both the church, and its victims. This is not a case for winners and losers. The sole turn for the melodramatic is the inclusion of a carol concert as a sweet Silent Night juxtaposes the score against the frantic drama of the final days before the deadline. It is a necessary narrative device. 9/11 delays publication. Christmas comes and goes. In procrastination, the film makes an erstwhile attempt at urgency, though it rightfully fails as a thriller.

Facts are unsexy. But the fact is Spotlight’s protagonist. That oft-overlooked vehicle to truth. The journalist is restored to the rightful position as the driver. Not just a slighted hacker of phone, but a full force to hold authority to account and pursue truth over speculation. We live in a culture that permits the basest media to erode and corrode our values. An overwhelming assault on our perception filter that blurs the lines between what matters and trivial tripe. Spotlight is a shining beacon reminding us that another path to enlightenment exists. And that is not one that lies in FaceBuzzFeeds…

Spotlight has a powerful emotional pathos, evoked most fully through Pfeiffer (McAdams) who doorsteps a priest, asking him to verify allegations of child molestation. She pauses, pained with the impossible situation. Words fail. The film takes time to develop the relationship with her religious Grandma – they attend church together – before she reads the final article. The domestic setting of the kitchen table offsets the invasion of the awful news. The heartbreak etched in the stony silence. The facts have a voice of their own. Spotlight is a two hour articulation of their power within society.

Image Courtesy of Digital Media Services

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