Today, in England, the Catholic Church has settled a case for £17,000 to a man who was abused as a child in the 1960s. The priest’s have since passed on, but the damage of their culture has not. It is an international problem, which the Vatican is still struggling to come to terms with. It is a deplorable abuse of trust, and is yet another mass crime committed by the church. It is stories such as this that make some people so passionately atheist; few topics spark such outrage.
It is surprising then that I never really felt that wound up by Spotlight. I expected to come out of the cinema with my ears pounding and my blood boiling, and yet I barely felt anything at all.
Spotlight tells the story of the ‘spotlight’ investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe. The Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron: he isn’t from Boston, he doesn’t like Baseball, and he’s The Globe’s first ever Jewish editor. He comes into The Globe with experience and the clarity of an outsider, and resurrects a previous story about Catholic priests in Boston sexually abusing young children. The story had been previously ignored or swept under the rug. Leading the spotlight investigation into this story is Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), bloodhound natured reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachael McAdams) and Brian James (Matt Carroll).
Other than Mark Ruffalo’s performance, I could tell you the rest of the plot and that’s all Spotlight really has to offer. Stanley Tucci adds flavour as the lawyer and lead source of Rezendes, and there is one memorable scene with a victim, but other than this the film is far too concerned with unfolding the story. How Rachael McAdams (who is usually very engaging) was nominated for her performance is baffling, simply because she is given so little to work with. She does her job well, but nothing more.
She is one of several characters who are remarkably passive. Rezendes is the only character with any urgency: he is the only one who seems to really care about the story. Even a dramatic twist is backhandedly swept away by a passive and muted response. It was like Luke Skywalker simply shrugging and walking off after being told Darth Vader is his father.
The film shouldn’t be a melodrama: but at the same time we didn’t even see how these disturbing revelations were affecting the reporters, let alone the victims. Other than one scene, everyone in the spotlight team get on surprisingly well and there is barely an ounce of friction between them. This could have been the case of course, but it was a remarkably placid atmosphere for what is usually such a high pressured environment: they may have the luxury of more time than most journalists, but you would expect the majority of that tension to be replaced by the sheer scale and incredibly distressing nature of the case. There surely has to be a limit to people’s professional composure. They weren’t stiff upper lips from the 18th Century.
During one of the films most memorable scenes, Rezendes eventually does lose his rag and cries that “we have to nail these scumbags!” and yet we don’t really know who these bastards are. There was virtually no time spent talking with abusive priests, and in this sense they were let off the hook. There was no attempt at defence and only a two minute scene where one Priest offers shocking justification, which is then ignored and we just carry on. For a film about investigative journalism it barely scratched the surface of the multiple and complex issues raised.
There was minimal time spent with the victims, and although it is talked about, we don’t see anyone from a family whose child did not survive the mental anguish caused by the abuse. I don’t need things rammed down my throat, but the way in which Spotlight is directed has taken virtually all of the charge out of a story with an incredibly high current.
But not only did Spotlight’s narrative lack raw power, it was also lacking as a film. It was primarily about investigative journalism, and yet had none of the flavour of All the President’s Men, from which it inevitably draws influence. It doesn’t have the skill of director Alan J. Pakula to immerse us fully in the world of the journalist, and it doesn’t have the performances of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman to keep us on our toes.
Spotlight keeps a safe distance from just about everything. It seems as if director Tom McCarthy has completely forgotten that even when dealing with such emotive material, we still need to see and feel as if the characters care. There’s a difference between laying in it on thick and executing powerful drama. Is that not why Liam Neeson’s speech at the end of Schindler’s List is so harrowing?
As it is Spotlight is a disappointingly executed film about a story that needs to be told. Other than for Mark Ruffalo, I would only recommend watching it in order to see the scale of the cover up within Boston and how the abuse of children was covered up by an entire community. Though if you are particularly interested in the subject, The Boston Globe released a detailed account of the story called Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, which I imagine you would get far more out of.
Spotlight is too one dimensional, too passive, and for a film which is supposed to illuminate a truly shocking story, Spotlight left far too much in the dark.