Spotlight (15)

four stars

Dir: Tom McCarthy

With: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

Runtime: 129 minutes

GIVEN the tendency of surveys to rank journalism on a professional par with dog-napping and stealing sweets from weans, Tom McCarthy’s Boston-set drama deserves at least five stars for making the Fourth Estate look first class.

But lay all such obvious bias from this quarter aside, because this true tale of the uncovering of a sex abuse scandal will amount to good old fashioned movie making in anyone’s business. If you need a second source for that assertion it is up for six Oscars on February 28. A third source? Who are you, Lord Leveson? Well, how about its director is the helmer of acclaimed drama The Visitor and its co-writer was a staff writer on The West Wing?

Spotlight is named after the investigations team of the Boston Globe newspaper. At the time of the events in question, Spotlight already had a bright reputation for going above and beyond. By the time McCarthy’s tale begins proper it is 2001 and the journalism trade is changing. Newsrooms are still full, but there is talk of cuts on the way and no-one wants to pour money into investigations that might go nowhere. The well-resourced days of Watergate and Zodiac (and over here the Thalidomide scandal) are long gone.

But claims about priests in the city refuse to go away, and the paper’s new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) decides to investigate the scale of the alleged abuse and what was done about it. Thus far, the Church has deployed the “few bad apples” defence to brush inquiries aside.

So it is that Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) gets his team together (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) and with the help of victims’ lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) the pavement pounding and telephone calling begins. Tucci’s lawyer fears this will just be another fleeting show of interest by the media. “The church thinks in centuries,” he barks at Ruffalo’s reporter. “Do you think your paper has the resources to take that on?”

McCarthy and his production designer, Stephen H Carter (Birdman, The Adjustment Bureau) are meticulous about depicting the period. The details of the newsrooms are spot on, from the sea of chinos and button down shirts to the banks of big, clunky computers. Spotlight is a hymn to a journalism in a certain age, and there is no denying the hero status afforded to some of the characters. Mark Ruffalo’s reporter, for instance, is the best of eggs - passionate, hard-working, tireless. Perhaps only Ruffalo could have got away such near saintliness in a character. Ruffalo has been nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, as has McAdams; the rest of the nominations are for best picture, directing, writing, and editing.

If Spotlight was just a love song to days gone by in journalism it would hardly be as gripping as it is. McCarthy and Singer know that the real focus here has to be the victims. Without them there is no story to tell, there is no heart. Their accounts are given time and space to develop, with McCarthy all the while piling in journalistic detail about checking sources, knocking on doors, all that good old fashioned stuff. Time and again the team are told that they will not get anywhere. Truth is being spoken to power, but in this town the powerful are very influential indeed.

Though the picture has a large ensemble cast, all of whom are terrific, Ruffalo, Keaton and Tucci especially, there is no duplication in character. The story could have been told from the perspective of any one of them and still have passed muster. It is much more difficult to play the team game, to keep lots of plates and sub-plots spinning, but that is what McCarthy does and his picture is all the better for it. For all its narrative sophistication, Spotlight is ruthlessly clear on the dividing line between light and darkness, good and bad, and it is not afraid to call it.