Break The Story, Break The Silence

Tom McCarthy

Mark Ruffalo
Michael Keaton
Rachel McAdams
Brian d’Arcy James
Liev Schreiber

Spotlight opens in early 2001, introducing us to The Boston Globe’s investigative team, dubbed Spotlight. They are comprised of three journalists Michael [Ruffalo], Sacha [McAdams] and Matt [d’Arcy James] who are overseen by editor, Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson [Keaton]. With the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron [Schreiber], Spotlight are told to drop their current investigation and are assigned a case that has peaked Baron’s attention. A recent column about an abusive Catholic priest being moved out of the parish is not being followed up but he believes there is a bigger story to be told. The team are reluctant, tending to pick and choose the cases they pursue but finally acquiesce. After a preliminary amount of surface digging, the team start to glean the scope and scale of this scandal but the more they look into the facts, the more they find their hands tied by legal proceedings and cover-ups.

One of the first things that hits you about this film is the importance placed on getting the story out at the right time, making sure the subject matter isn’t simply butchered or buried in the news cycle. In as much as it is the story of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it is also a look at the relevance of newspapers and the importance of fact-checking and patience. The rise of the internet eating into readership and sales is mentioned but never explored because the dedication to the stories published speaks volumes. Baron himself asks Robby how long the group can spend on a single piece and he very matter-of-factly responds that it can be several months before a noteworthy story presents itself. In an age of misleading headlines, constant hollow retractions, sensationalist stories and a sea of spurious claims, Spotlight champions the work done by true investigative journalists.

But setting aside the love letter to print media for a second, what we have here is a genuinely rare and unique thing; a drama based on a true story that tells the facts plainly, avoids embellishment where possible, never strays into damaging hyperbolic territory, never dumbs down the information and doesn’t require a heavy subplot to sidetrack from the central drive. Too many dramas of this nature have a tendency, whether intentional or otherwise, to revel in the unpleasant details or heighten the warrior elements of those seeking social justice. Thankfully both of these are avoided as the abuse is dealt with frankly yet respectfully and the investigatory team are appalled and driven but never beyond the realm of credibility or reliability. These people are determined to uncover the truth both to expose the horror and injustice of it all but at the same time they are plagued by doubts, concerns and frustrations. This is a true testament to both the reserve and intelligence of the script and the sensitivity and skill of the actors; much in the same way that the press are represented in All The President’s Men and The Killing Fields. By neatly sidestepping the lionising and demonising of everyone involved, it creates a very haunting, honest and real depiction.

Much like The Big Short the revelations that unfold are already known to the audience. It is entirely up to the actors on-screen to convince us of the horror, to almost force you to relive the first time you heard said news or felt the impact of these discoveries. Depending on how much or how little you know, could shape how closely your own expressions mirror those of the lead characters. The three key struts of the performances can be divided into the Globe staff, the lawyers and the victims. The Globe staff argue amongst themselves but all have the same goal. I could highlight them all by name but in all honesty each offers a great and unique aspect to this story with a very personal connection. Furthermore their personal lives are touched upon but not a great deal. Frankly, I’m a little torn about this; does this make them underdeveloped or not? These individuals are clearly married to their jobs and everything outside of work suffers but at the same time, the story they’re covering takes infinite precedence over their own lives – even 9/11 is given a bit of a glossing. Then we have the lawyers who are first labelled as responsible but before you start to point the blame, you start to realize they are partly trapped by this too. Obviously they are culpable but so are the Globe staff for ignoring the story for so long. Finally we have the victims, all of whom are presented with extraordinary sensitivity and credibility. These aren’t stereotypical caricatures but honest portrayals offering a range of individuals with all manner of personalities and insecurities. It’s a crucial element because it highlights that everyone deals with trauma differently. And while these performances are given by largely unknown actors, they are each as powerful as the next.

From a technical point of view, there isn’t a great deal to say. Set dressing early 2000s bureaucracy is an unenviable task. How does one utilise a series of offices, sterile corridors and simple domestic interiors to evoke growing tension? Yet somehow Spotlight manages to pull it off and it’s a frankly amazing achievement. I think a key to this is Howard Shore’s subtle and simple score. There’s a lot to be said for building on simple melodies, especially when performed on a single lead instrument like the piano. Beautiful, poignant and tender.

Admittedly, Spotlight isn’t for everyone. Uncomfortable subject matter aside, certain audience members go to the cinema for escapism and will no doubt decry this film as hollow or boring but in truth, this film couldn’t be further from it. Compelling and gripping, the characters are captivating and their frustration wholly felt. For a film of this nature, what more could you ask for?

Release Date:
29th January 2016

The Scene To Look Out For:
As unusual as this may sound, I really liked the 9/11 scene. Those attacks shocked America so much that literally everything shut down. For months, years, the September 11th attacks were all anyone would talk about. To set any film during this time period and not have to focus on it, is difficult to say the least. And while the awful nature of the attack understandably dominated the press it didn’t mean that the rest of the world was put on hold. There was still a slew of news and all kinds of stories to be told; most of which were shelved. Being so invested in this story, it was nice that the film addressed how a bigger story would always potentially eclipse their findings. Bold, well-handled and honest – a word I find myself repeating all-too-often throughout this review.

Notable Characters:
While the script features the Globe reporters heavily, the true pioneer of justice is the experienced, exhausted and tenacious lawyer Mitchell Garabedian played by Stanley Tucci. The Armenian Orthodox lawyer sees himself as an outsider and therefore the only one willing to work on these cases with his client’s best interests at heart. Tucci gives us the energy, passion and exasperated vexation that we expect from everyone involved. He’s no stranger to these cases or the reality behind them and watching him continue to work while the reporters are happy with their initial achievement is great.

Highlighted Quote:
“I can’t speak to what happened before I arrived but all of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this”

In A Few Words:
“Unpleasant mature subject matter respectfully handled and presented in this superb drama”

Total Score: