There are many films that people describe as ‘heavy’. Where you have to psych up to watch them because they leave you feeling so bleak, drained and miserable afterwards you just want a big overdose of feel good to cheer you up. I remember the Sunday afternoon I watched the stunning but entirely bleak Shame, I was utterly relieved that my second film of the afternoon was Disney’s Tangled. Turns out that’s a perfect film combo – try it.
Then you get ‘heavy and important’ where the subject matter is bleak, but you so want people to watch because these are films that can bring an understanding of a moment in history or raise awareness of a situation or make sure you never, ever touch heroin (yes Requiem for a Dream, you). However, these films have a tough time, because when you’ve had a crap week at work, or you’re tired or feeling sad, you don’t want educating or someone else’s horror played out in front of you. You just want entertaining, so you reach for a blockbuster with some explosions, a touch of romance and a bit with a dog. And fair play.
So, how do the movie makers get films with a ‘message’ to be watched by the masses? Well, in the case of Spotlight, take a sidestep from the bleak subject matter and look from a different angle. Like the wonder that is 2013’s Philomena did. Rather than making another The Magdalene Sisters (which while excellent , really needs 2 Disney films and a 60’s musical to recover from), Philomena leads in with a journalist and focuses on the central relationship, rather than just the horror. So we get to laugh as much as we cry. Spotlight doesn’t really let you laugh much, but it does pick you up and grab you straight away and it doesn’t put you down until it’s done. You never feel you want to turn off because it’s just too horrible or find yourself going ‘yes I GET it, you can cut now’. Spotlight is a thriller, it’s about journalists hunting a story, it’s just the story happens to be the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal in Boston. Which is bleak.
Spotlight’s blend of the journalistic race to the presses and the uncovering of the extent of the abuse has drawn inevitable comparisons to All The President’s Men. The brilliance of both films is that they make the business of uncovering the story exciting, even though the audience knows what the story is. By the time ATPM came out in 1976, Nixon had resigned, been pardoned and all of the juicy details of Watergate were known by all. But it’s still an extremely exciting film. Spotlight manages to produce the same excitement by keeping the focus on the team of journalists and letting us re-discover the story through their eyes. The most important thing Spotlight has to convey is just how powerful and all pervasive the Catholic Church is in Boston. If you are a non-Catholic, non-Bostonian viewer it has to get this across to you without using lots of exposition. Spotlight achieves this by bringing in an outsider, the new editor of the Boston Globe is here – Marty Baron – played by the brilliant Liev Schreiber. Baron is our navigator through this close-knit community, he is also not Catholic and not from Boston. He doesn’t even like baseball (the other church of Boston) and Schreiber plays him so subtly, so quietly, his character just quietly tugging at the loose threads, breathing on the house of cards, but showing no pleasure when everything unravels, when the house falls down. It’s not the showy role of the film, no big emotional moments, but Schreiber is magnificent throughout. Baron is established as the outsider from the outset, using the device of the central characters comments and observations of him and his importance in uncovering this community wide silence, is revealed to us slowly and quietly. With the other ‘outsider’ character, Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, the character declares his own status and it’s importance in getting answers in one memorable, soup-eating scene. Ending with the line: ” If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
The central titular team, are all from Boston and are all Catholic (or lapsed), which makes the story utterly compelling, because we get to see their daily struggle with maintaining their journalistic professionalism and enjoying the thrill of the chasing of the facts in the face of a slowly unfurling horror, and moreover a horror that was right beneath their noses the whole time, happening to their friends and being covered up by other friends. Great stuff for any actor and Micheal Keaton, Rachael McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James are all wonderful, truthfully playing these real people, with a pace and performance usually reserved for stage. They did some serious ground work that pays off. As an aside, Keaton panicked about the Boston accent, but on meeting the real Walter Robinson, realised to his relief, that Robinson’s accent wasn’t very strong. A mention too for John Slattery, comfortably playing the disbelieving, naysayer role, who wants to stop the story that he never dreams will be as big as it is. And of course Mark Ruffalo, who got the Oscar nod, and I can see why, against the other players, if you had to pick someone, his character has the most interesting journey. Ruffalo is a stage performer, he has the training to fully immerse into his character. He brings a beautiful, nervous energy to his portrayal of Mike Rezendes, slight hunch, totally believable fidgets and habits and delivers a quiet performance of a professional hunting the truth. What is interesting about Rezendes, is unlike the rest of the central characters, he seems mostly unaffected by the revelations, only emotional as a journalist in pursuit of a story. So when he does finally crack, it is unspeakably powerful, the trailer really shouldn’t have used that moment, because it is so much more when seen in context. It’s Ruffalo’s build up to the moment, that makes the moment. “They knew. And they let it happen.” And his lovely scene afterwards with McAdams’ Sacha Pfieffer. Ruffalo’s mouth-twisted, fidgety delivery of the line ‘When I stopped going to church, I always thought I’d go back‘ and his agonised realisation that he has dug and dug to tear down an institution as a journalist and not acknowledged how the Catholic, Boston boy who still has the Church on a pedestal feels. It reminded me of the wonderful line in Dogma, when Bethany describes her loss of faith. “When you’re a kid, you never question the whole faith thing. Nope. God’s in heaven, and he’s…she’s…always got her eye on you. I would give anything to feel that way again.” Beautiful work, Ruffalo, and just like the rest of the cast, always subtle and true. However, his performance wouldn’t work without the rest, so sort it out ‘the Academy’ we need an ensemble award and this year should have included Spotlight and Straight Outta Compton (more on that next time).
The production is lovely, close camera work gives us the highly intimate feel required, and the lighting and locations all just feel unbearably normal, there’s no Fincher-esque over-saturation to tell us it’s bleak or period charm bright wash to tell us it’s in the past, or fussy lot built sets, it’s just a capturing of normal life and people in it. There are some lovely shots, my favourite was when the titular team of journalists are sat around a speaker phone and the caller begins to outline the statistics he has uncovered, as the numbers are revealed we have a slow dolly zoom out. This mirrors the characters realisation of the magnitude and the implication of what the caller is saying, while using a technique common for thrillers and horror movies to startling effect.
So Spotlight nailed the casting, the production and the pace, producing a pacey newspaper thriller. I think what really sets it apart though, is the handling of the subject matter. The victims / survivors (whatever term they would prefer) are wonderfully well balanced and true. We meet the survivor who has set up a support group, who talks almost like a sales rep, so used is he to having to sell and defend his story, in the face of constant denials and dismissals and being called a crank. He gives us the chilling soundbite “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?”. The film also gives us victims who have never told their story before, and the actors find the truth in the pain of relieving it, admitting it. The scene when Robby confronts his old school friend with the truth and we see all of the choices flash through his mind in a brief few seconds (deny it, laugh it off, punch him) before he just exhales and says ‘I never even told my wife‘. It’s never overplayed, people don’t shout and scream about these things, sadly the overwhelming documented response is guilt and apology and sadly just relief at being believed and acknowledged. For me, the most powerful victim encounter was with Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton). He tells his story with a half-smile, tells it as if it happened to someone else and seeks to make the listener almost comfortable, and heartbreakingly justifies his involvement in the abuse. When he does finally break-down, he says sorry and is cross with himself that he is crying. A very, very true response. We think it’s because he is having to relive the trauma but then he looks up and says “It’s just that there’s a church right there. And a playground.”
Spotlight is a fantastic and quietly thrilling watch, but it also seeks to keep an important story alive. The lists at the end of the film, of all the other places systematic cover ups of abuse by Catholic priests have been found, raised a gasp from my fellow cinema-goers. Even when you think you know about something, film has the power to make you look from a different perspective and learn more. A film like Spotlight does this quietly, while you are busy being entertained.
Afterword: I still think Mad Max:Fury Road should have taken Best Picture. It has a BARD. Playing a guitar that SHOOTS FLAMES. So awesome.