For many, All the President’s Men is the ultimate 70s paranoia movie, the film which inspired a generation of investigative journalists. Now, all these years later, comes a film which in every way is its equal. Spotlight is angry, unbearably tense, brilliantly written and performed, and of course based on a real life scandal, arguably one of the biggest scandals to hit America since the 1970s.
The newsroom in question is the Boston Globe, specifically its special investigations section called Spotlight. Its leader is Michael Keaton, who immediately comes under pressure to deliver a story by new editor Live Schreiber, a peculiar, possibly autistic man but one who is thorough in his job and sees potential in a story about a child abuse case. Keaton agrees to pursue the story with his crack team, including the driven Mark Ruffalo and the sensitive Rachel McAdams. They slowly reveal several cases of abuse of children in the 1970s by Catholic priests, and try to get the victims, now very fragile adults, to reveal their stories.
When the team try and go higher they hit a brick wall. Lawyers, leading members of the church and policemen seem to have selective memories or no memory at all, and Keaton’s team smell a huge rat. Literally in one case, as they discover the key code to the whole mystery, the movements of priests from area to area suspiciously quickly, logged in dusty catalogues in the basement of their building near, yes, a dead rat.
The brilliance of the structure is that it focuses on two victims initially, then slowly but surely the picture widens and the numbers get bigger and more alarming. At one point John Slattery’s character says, “If there were 13 priests abusing children wouldn’t someone have noticed?” Mark Ruffalo’s character responds, “Maybe they did”. The team inch nearer and nearer to the story, thanks to doorstepping, clandestine meetings in pubs and bars, and in one amazing scene at the school Keaton’s character went to with a fellow pupil whose life is now ruined by his abused past.
The school, we learn from the typically non flashy but spot on camerawork, is bang opposite the Boston Globe building, one of many verified facts to the story. Get the details right and the film will follow – another example would be just as the team are making progress 9/11 happens and they all get pulled from the project.
The performances here have to be understated and they certainly are. Keaton is the beating heart of the gang, morally upright and appalled that something so horrific could be happening in his home town, to people he grew up with. Ruffalo is the angry young buck, and even McAdams tones it down as the sensitive female reporter who manages an amazing scoop when she doorsteps an apparently senile old priest. Schreiber has a smaller role as the socially awkward new editor but his unease almost makes him more intriguing. It’s Stanley Tucci though who steals the show as a conflicted lawyer representing the poor, voiceless victims, apparently unable to help the journos dig up the story but desperate for them to do so. The final sequence packs a punch rarely felt in the cinema.
Overall Verdict: In the 1970s cinema was political, angry, paranoid and made us think as well as entertained us. Times may have changed but Spotlight takes us back to that angry era, and presents a polemic argument which is passionate, gripping and utterly compelling.
Reviewer: Mike Martin