Movie review 'Spotlight': A well-acted tribute to journalism

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | SUDARSHAN RAMANI
Published Feb 20, 2016, 12:48 am IST
Updated Feb 20, 2016, 12:48 am IST
Spotlight is a tribute to journalism and news coverage.
A still from the movie Spotlight
 A still from the movie Spotlight
Rating:

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James
Director: Tom McCarthy

Spotlight is the name of an investigative team at the Boston Globe. The team consists of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who are stewarded by their senior editors Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) to investigate a series of reports on child molestation scandals involving priests in Boston.

 

The reporters, many of them being raised Catholic, have their faith and personal convictions tested as a seemingly small case leads to a flood of revelations about the corruption of the Catholic Church and the collusion with political, legal and academic institutions in hiding paedophile priests and preventing their victims from getting justice.

Spotlight superficially calls to mind films like All the President’s Men, The Insider and films about crusading journalists. The similarity is not without merit, but I would argue that Spotlight is different, as it doesn’t adopt any elements from the thriller genre that other films tackle. There is very little over-dramatisation in the portrayal of investigative journalism. It’s entirely concerned with process and procedure.

 

We know that the reporters will complete the investigation and conduct their exposé, what matters is how the truth is uncovered and how the journalists react. As such Spotlight is less about the investigation of a scandal than a documentary about how investigation works, institutions work and how information is preserved and accessed.

The film takes care to preserve an ensemble. It’s not a movie with one main character so much as multiple characters tracking leads along parallel lines. The film’s cross-cutting juggles these threads to prevent the claustrophobia of the film’s mundane settings from seeping through. Most of the movie takes place in offices at Boston Globe, homes, cafes and other places where interviews are taken.

 

The film avoids tedium by changing exterior locations constantly, quick cutting (albeit in a conventional form) the various extended discussions and deftly juggling various separate threads. So one can see that Rachel McAdams’ character does most of the one-on-one interactions with the victims, Mark Ruffalo goes to the courthouse and interacts with the genuinely decent lawyer played by Stanley Tucci and the various archives. Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber talk to the higher-ups in the city and Church administration.

This documentary-like division calls to mind films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Contagion, where a single social issue was explored across multiple institutional levels. But this is also a potential weakness, as Soderbergh’s films, though heavily fictionalised, focused on the human element and turmoil caused by drugs and biological disasters.

 

The social disaster of the Catholic Church fundamentally betraying its tenets however, is kept at arm’s length. Spotlight rarely touches on the psyche of the victims, merely hinting at it. One brief scene discusses the mentality of paedophile priest, suggesting that they were stunted in brain or that celibacy has caused these problems. The scene which shows us a paedophile priest, a weird child-like monster who himself claims to be a victim of rape, is scary and chilling.

What the film gets right is the culture of Boston, a traditionally Irish Catholic community, which is afraid of confronting a dark aspect of its society and culture. The film is genuinely informative in telling us how the Church maintained its cloak of secrecy on paedophilia. Accused priests were transferred to a different church and reporters estimate the number of priests accused by tracking transfers.
Spotlight is incredibly well-acted.

 

Michael Keaton, Rachel MacAdams and Mark Ruffalo are standouts as the three leads — all of them playing character parts. Ruffalo is intense and passionate, unsentimental in his heroism.

Spotlight is a tribute to journalism and news coverage. It is, perhaps, a film that invites bias from film critics since it touches on our turf of familiarity. Yet, it is a mature, compelling film that is genuinely informative about a very serious issue.

The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society

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