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Film Review | Spotlight

Hero hacks take on the Boston clerical hierarchy in this understated, Oscar-baiting ensemble piece

Teodor Reljic
15 February 2016, 8:23am
The truth is out there: Boston Globe journalists Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel MacAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) take on the Boston clergy in this quiet but diligent drama
The truth is out there: Boston Globe journalists Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel MacAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) take on the Boston clergy in this quiet but diligent drama
Journalists make for good film protagonists. They’re perfectly poised to crack open mysteries and pursue equally interesting and/or eccentric characters. Much in the same way as detectives, they are ideal vehicles for both exposition and intrigue: it’s perfectly justified to use them to transmit information to the audience, as that is very much the nature of the job.

But having journalists as either protagonists or supporting characters is one thing… delving on the dynamics of the newsroom in particular is quite another. And while I can confirm that the job can have its share of drama and excitement, like any other job it’s also often a grind, and it’s not to be automatically assumed that a movie about the profession can be spun whole cloth with minimal effort.

Luckily, director Tom McCarthy, who has diligently brought the Oscar-baiting Spotlight to the big screen, has both a keen eye for character and an admirable restraint in his directorial approach.

Veteran newspaper editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is brought in from Florida to lead the Boston Globe despite having very little familiarity with the city ­– and, more awkwardly still, an aversion to baseball – and finds a newsroom at the brink of greatness.

As it turns out, their long-form investigative team, ‘Spotlight’, led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) has been sitting on a journalistic goldmine: the hint of an institutional cover-up of paedophile priests shuffling in and out of the city with very little consequence, and with victims being dulled into silence by communal taboo.

However, the explosive nature of this story becomes all the more apparent to Robby’s dedicated team – including the tenacious Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel MacAdams) and Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll) – that the more they dig, the more emboldened they become about facing the very real consequences of publishing the thorough and hard-hitting expose.


The first thing you’ll notice about Spotlight is that, in fact, very little pops up to attract your attention. McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer direct all their energies to flattening out the tangled legal web at the heart of this story. And though the basic contours of it may be intuitively familiar to all – sadly, the narrative of child abuse within the clergy has been drummed into us by now – the specifics of the matter when it comes to this particular story are intrinsically wended to Boston’s – predominantly Catholic – culture.

So presenting this in a way that’s both coherent and compelling is no mean feat, much more so when McCarthy employs zero visual flair to help him signpost things, and resists the urge to illustrate the cases that ignite the investigation in ‘horrific’ flashbacks and the like.

Though the end result may be that of a ‘TV movie’ aesthetic, it’s also an approach that lets us focus on the workings of the – brilliant – ensemble cast, and like the hard-working journalists that we root for from start to finish, it’s simply focused on getting the job done as thoroughly and honestly as possible.

Freed from the strictures of the Marvel Studios franchise he’s firmly embedded in as Bruce Banner/Hulk, it’s perhaps Mark Ruffalo who humanizes the process most of all. Hints of a private life are kept at a bare minimum – as they are for the rest of his colleagues – to let the awkward but tenacious hack win us over with his unscrupulous work ethic. And any sign that the film may veer towards Hollywood cliché and sentimentality are quashed in the way Marty Baron is depicted.

Casting the imposing Liev Schreiber in the role, the easiest choice for McCarthy would have been to depict him as the jerkoff new boss out for blood and adamant to bring his new underlings to heel.

Nothing of that sort happens, however. Baron’s grizzled low voice simply ‘suggests’ that the paper pursue their long-buried story about shocking clerical abuse – a story that will have them doing the equivalent of “suing the Church”.  

And as most journalists will tell you… sometimes all you need is a second pair of eyes. 

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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