Spotlight is the true story of The Boston Globe‘s investigative reporting team, who in 2001 uncovered endemic child abuse within the Catholic Church. Beginning with a look into a single case of abuse by a priest, the investigative team’s enquirers snowballed dramatically to reveal abuse on a scale none of them had ever imagined. Working closely with the lawyer representing the survivors, they discover the abuse was allowed to go unreported for decades due to the machinations of the Church.
Spotlight does not exploit its story for dramatic effect, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. The reality of the investigation is that much of what happens revolves chasing around courtrooms and libraries, and accumulating harrowing testimony from the survivors. While it would have been crass and inappropriate to overdramatise the events that took place, it does mean that at times it is hard to fully engage with the film.
Although individuals, such as Cardinal Francis Law, are named and held accountable, the Spotlight investigative team’s mandate was to run with a bigger story than the individual priests. They were to highlight the failings of the Church itself and the system that perpetuated these horrors. As such, there is no clear focal point for the audience’s anger at the systematic abuses the Church inflicted upon the people in their care. As a piece of drama it is not hugely satisfying for the principal villain of the piece to be the intangible construct of a religious organisation.
That’s not to say this is a fault as such. Particularly if you stop to consider what kind of a film it might be with more dramatic license applied to the plotline. Spotlight takes on a very weighty story, and treats it with a mature approach. But with a raft of characters and an emphasis on the diligent investigative work, there is a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps this particular story might have been better served in a longer format, such as a television mini series. There is, however, some interesting character development at play, not least with investigators Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, lapsed Catholics who find the investigation cements their disillusionment with their faith.
The direction is not flashy and, mercifully, there is no grandstanding on the acting front. But the performances are very good across the board. The standouts are Mark Ruffalo’s intense, dogged reporter Rezendes, Michael Keaton’s understated turn as Robby Robinson, and the ever-excellent Stanley Tucci as crusading lawyer Mitch Garabedian. Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James do sterling work as the other reporters on the Spotlight team, while Liev Schreiber and John Slattery also do well in less rounded roles.
In summary, Spotlight gives an important story a respectful and sensitive treatment. But in its quest for authenticity, it sacrifices some of its emotional punches.