Fourth Estate Agency
Looking back on the list of films I’ve seen so far in 2016, an unusual pattern develops – there’s been Joy (based on a true story), In the Heart of the Sea (based on a true story), The Revenant (based on a true story), and The Big Short (based on a true story). So far the only film with the guts to go ahead and actually be fictional is Creed.
Joining the list now is the critically-acclaimed Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy. I guess we’re just not living in fictitious times any more, for there are a whole bunch of these movies about at the moment, including a significant percentage of the Best Picture Nominee shortlist (let’s not forget Bridge of Spies is on there too). Perhaps it is just the case that being based on true events is more likely to give your film gravitas, and thus turn it into Oscar bait.
The subject matter of Spotlight certainly gives it gravitas, for this is a film dealing with the most serious issues. It opens in 2001 with a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), taking over at the Boston Globe, which naturally causes a little uneasiness amongst the rest of the staff. Amongst these are Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) and his team of journalists, a group specialising in highly sensitive long-haul investigations.
At Baron’s request, Robertson and his team revisit an older story – that of a paedophile priest. What makes this unusual is the suggestion that documents exist proving that a cardinal in the Catholic Church was aware of this man’s activities and complicit in ensuring they were covered up. This is a provocative, even explosive story in a strongly Irish-Catholic city like Boston, and the journalists (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Matt Carroll) have to tread softly as they follow up their leads…
Well, Michael Keaton may not have won the Oscar last year, but being in an acclaimed film brings its own benefits. You could possibly argue that Spotlight only serves to confirm Birdman's thesis that you can’t get anywhere as an actor unless you’re willing to play a superhero (Batman, the Hulk and Sabertooth set out to take on corruption in the Church!), but it’s impossible to deny that this film features an ensemble cast of the highest quality, doing excellent work together.
The team dynamic is actually a fairly crucial element of the film, as this is – after all – a story about a team. On paper this may look like (yet) another film examining the self-inflicted troubles of the Catholic Church, and the revelations which come to light in the course of the story are damning (there’s a grotesque encounter with a retired priest who openly confesses to molesting children, but is at pains to point out that he got no personal gratification from it, as if that’s some kind of an excuse). If you’ve seen Silence in the House of God, a straight documentary on this topic, you may already be aware of some of the astonishing statistics involved – 50% of all priests fail to meet the celibacy requirement, and 6% have some history of inappropriate behaviour. Spotlight puts this information over powerfully, though, and in a way which is accessible as a story.
But this isn’t simply an exercise in angry Vatican-bashing. Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the film manages to be, if not upbeat, then certainly guardedly optimistic. This isn’t necessarily with respect to the Church, but to society in general – terrible things did occur, and they were covered up for a while, but in the end the truth came out and justice of a sort was done. And this, the film suggests, was largely down to the efforts of journalists, who emerge from the film as dedicated, heroic figures, devoted to the idea of truth.
Sensibly, the film isn’t quite as black-and-white as that, and the various characters are depicted as flawed and troubled and capable of making mistakes – as well as of feeling the strain that their profession places upon them (Ruffalo plays a lapsed Catholic who is eager to attack the Church for his own reasons, Carroll has real difficulty sitting on the information they uncover). But this is a journalists-break-a-big-story film in the classic style, and you do identify with them and thrill at the moments when they face down their opponents or make the big discovery they’ve been searching for.
I have to say that Tom McCarthy’s name rang only a vague bell when I first heard about this film, but only the most cursory research revealed that he was the guy behind The Station Agent, one of my favourite films of the mid 2000s (apparently he was also involved in making Up, which suggests an interestingly eclectic CV). The Station Agent was a no frills picture of the highest quality, and the same is arguably true of Spotlight, too.
Certainly compared to some of the year’s other big films, McCarthy’s directorial approach is almost underplayed: there are no big narrative devices here, no bold conceits or especially memorable choices of shot. (Though he does quietly contrive to have a church in the background of many of his exterior scenes, perhaps attempting to indicate the ubiquity of the institution in Boston.) He just gets on with telling the story in an intelligent and mature manner and does so extremely well. Is that enough for a film to garner significant awards glory in the modern world? I don’t know, but this film has the subject matter, the script, the performances, and the storytelling to be a serious contender in any sensible competition.