If one weren’t paying attention, it would appear to be quite easy to simply write off Spotlight as a ho-hum run of the mill film about journalism. Understated performances combined with basic camera work, a nice score and talking, lots of talking, and you have what – on paper at least – should just be ok. So, it’s a testament to the talent and know how of director and co-writer Tom McCarthy that he takes this tale of exposing child abuse in the Catholic Church in Boston and makes it an impressive film. Not only is it one of the best films of the year (2016 for Australia), but when this film takes away the Best Picture award (mark my words, it will), it will be probably the finest and most deserving Best Picture winner since (in my opinion) The Silence of the Lambs.

It’s been awhile since a film has sucker punched me and left me speechless as the credits roll up. Yet, Spotlight did just that. Maybe it’s my keen interest in ethical journalism that had me on board, maybe it’s because of my memories of the case unfolding in early 2002, or maybe it’s simply because this is a great, immersive story told supremely well. Tom McCarthy has always been a good director in my eyes, but with Spotlight he manages to step into the realm of being a great director. McCarthy knows how to use his actors to their greatest potential – and he does so here with some of the best performances of Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber and Stanley Tucci’s careers.

This is not a film with showy moments. This is not a film where each actor gets their ‘Oscar reel’ moment of shouting, or crying, or ‘emoting with great intentions’. Simply put, this is a film that is just about people doing their job honourably and covering a story that needed to be told. At the heart of this story is a team of investigative reporters who make up the prestigious Spotlight team based at the Boston Globe. After their most recent story wraps up, they start looking for a new story; at first, they’re onto a story that doesn’t appear to grip them all that much, but it’s something that needs to be investigated. Enter new Jewish editor, Marty Baron (Schrieber), who suggests the team look into child molestations allegations brought upon the Catholic Church by one individual.

While the core story is enough to be powerful cinema in itself, McCarthy’s tireless effort to tell the story with as much truth and honesty as possible makes this essential cinema. McCarthy spent months researching the story prior to the film being announced, ensuring that the project wouldn’t be leaked so that his own investigations weren’t hampered by those who didn’t want this story to be explored further. This is echoed in the film where the team of journalists have to constantly weigh up the risks of delaying releasing the story to the public for fear that they may lose its greater impact. When one of the reporters finds out that one of the priests who potentially molested a child lives around the corner from him, he asks whether he can tell the children on the street not to go near his house. Yet, the realisation that even informing these children of the danger that lurks near them may jeopardise the investigation, and thus jeopardise bringing potential justice to the victims.

Spotlight shows that even a large city like Boston can have a small town mentality. Through various different characters we hear of how the (seemingly common) knowledge of the molestations has been around for a while, and the reasoning for not addressing the issue was that it is a small town, the Church is the town. As Keaton’s Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson says at one point, the problem was right across the road from the Boston Globe and yet they didn’t even see it. The same feeling that I got when watching The Hunting Ground permeates through this film – the feeling that these poor children are simply ‘taking one for the team’ because the Church brings ‘good’ and ‘care’ to the community.  

Church bells echo throughout the streets, and rooftops of churches lear over neighbouring houses like daunting hands reaching out over the city. Yet, while this is a film about the abuse delivered by the priests, it never feels unbearably oppressive. McCarthy realises this is a difficult story, but tells it in a digestible manner – some moments are hard to stomach, but the steadfast desire to get this story out to the public from these core reporters helps it be delivered. The victims stories are delivered in a way that never sensationalises the terrible events that occurred – you feel a great empathy for these people as they deliver their stories. Where other films would focus on the minute details of the molestation, Spotlight wants to momentarily remind the viewers of what these reporters are trying to uncover before moving on.

There is a great sense of being in a state of flux within Spotlight. It’s difficult to display a world that’s about to change on film, but McCarthy encaptures that perfectly here. Starting in June 2001, Spotlight shows a world coming to grips with the possibilities of online media. It shows a world only months away from the largest terrorist attack on American soil. It shows a world that simply accepts the presence of religion as being a ‘good’ thing. And as the film progresses, we see the idea of the long held ‘public standards’ of religion change, and peoples reactions to the possibility of it changing. It’s assured direction from McCarthy that none of this rings false – especially the mafia-like ‘shakedowns’ that come from some of the church’s clergymen, which under a less confident director could have come across as hokey and cheesy and overtly villainous.

In many ways, Spotlight appears to be a simple film. However, at certain moments, McCarthy employs subtle camera techniques like a slow pull back to reveal a room full of journalists to quietly reinforce the gravity of the situation. Howard Shore’s score is – like the rest of the film – understated and adds a subtle highlight to scenes. The dialogue feels exceptionally natural with it often feeling fresh and ad libbed.

Like any great film, there is a lot to digest with Spotlight. From Mark Ruffalo’s career best performance, to the ever unfolding story (which, may I add, even with all the names thrown around the place, I never felt that I didn’t understand what was going on) – this is a truly essential film to watch and I know I’ll be damn excited when it wins big at the Academy Awards.

Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Liev Scrieber
Script: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer