The two Best Picture Oscar contenders focussing on recent real-world scandals take approaches that couldn’t be more different, yet both are appropriate to their respective material. Adam McKay musters interest in the inaccessible background to the subprime crisis (and from thence the decade-long downer of global economic meltdown and its aftermath) through a poppy, absurdist spin. Tom McCarthy treats Spotlight with contrastingly sombre sobriety, refraining even from the subdued thriller mechanics that informed the reportage genre’s greatest avatar, All the President’s Men. Occasionally, his picture allows the tensions involved in getting the story to press intrude, but mostly, and rightly, McCarthy is intent on just telling it as it is, with no frills or pirouettes.
Both The Big Short and Spotlight have a similar idea at their core, though, a “Who knew?” that informs the outrage. If The Big Short promotes the view that only its motley band of anti-heroes had the insight to see the extent of the damage poised to rain down on the financial system, Spotlight is unequivocal about those responsible for brushing the Boston Roman Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal under the carpet; everyone is. Even The Boston Globe, the newspaper that eventually breaks the story, is complicit in leaving stones unturned. As Stanley Tucci’s crusading attorney Mitchell Garabedian tells Mark Ruffalo’s eager reporter Michael Rezendes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”.
Garabedian, of Armenian extraction, suggests his lack of Boston Irish credentials lends him the freedom to rock the boat, unimpinged by the instinct to rally around the status quo, or take at face value assurances of one bad apple. Likewise, Liev Schrieber’s Marty Baron, the new editor of the Globe and its first Jewish incumbent, has no preconceptions about pursuing an already covered story, at which his team initially blanche (but in which the energetic Rezendes is eager to sniff around).
Investigative journalism is naturally cinematic, if often narratively dense, and, while Spotlight may lack the paranoid claustrophobia of Alan J Pakula’s aforementioned President’s Men, or the visual panache of Michael Mann’s The Insider, it’s every bit as commanding and diligent in telling its story. From the realisation that these predatory priests (shown ruthlessly seeking out the most vulnerable and afflicted) are just circulated to another parish when their sins are found out, to tracking down suspects through the Church’s absentee codes, a system that perpetuates, even effectively encourages, abuse is revealed.
Tom McCarthy, being an actor (he played a journalist in the final season of The Wire), is an actor’s director, and, as with earlier successes The Station Agent and The Visitor, all eyes are on them, what they are doing and saying. He has assembled an outstanding ensemble, with the Spotlight team (the Globe’s dedicated investigative unit) headed up by Michael Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson and also comprising Ruffalo (occasionally Rezendes is prodded for melodramatic moments that seem a little at odds with the overall tone, such as his silent rumination in the church foyer and grandstanding demand that the story be published forthwith), Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams (her Sacha Pfeiffer doesn’t really stand out in any way, though, making the Oscar nomination slightly surprising).
John Slattery brings the wiry intelligence he displayed in Mad Men to Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr (son of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee Sr, immortalised in President’s Men by Jason Robards), while Schreiber, currently playing a Bostonian in Ray Donovan, is a particular standout, lending Baron quiet assuredness and determination. Tucci knows a great character part when he sees one, as does (uncredited) Billy Crudup, personifying the other side of the legal coin with reptilian warmth; his attorney is responsible for settling many of the church’s cases (out of court). Unknown actors playing the abuse victims are also highly accomplished, including Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton.
McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ensure we’re apprised of the levels of collusion in this, from the police, to the legal world, and the schools (although, the political spectrum doesn’t really intrude). Keaton’s Robinson must guiltily admit to his own effective burying of the bigger story eight years earlier, but his deeper motivations on this are left for the viewer to discern. It is easy to comprehend the creeping defensiveness in action, the allowing of unconscionable situations to continue unchecked under one’s nose, lest it shatter the foundation of one’s reality (one mother is cited whose seven children have been abused). The tangle of conspiratorial legality and omission that prevents the journalists from accessing what ought to be public documents is eventually unravelled by further legal nous, but even then, there are further obstacles before the material is finally accessed.
Singer said the object of Spotlight was chiefly to emphasise the value of good journalism, rather than operate as an exposé of the Catholic Church, which certainly comes over in its telling from the investigators’ perspective. But the incendiary nature of the actual case is intrinsic to why Spotlight is effective, with the end credits providing a long list of the various places and countries where scandals have been brought to light, the implication being that this was a game-changer in recognising the issue (for which the Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service). However, it does lead one to question what has really changed in the intervening time; the essential story is now so pervasive that the words paedophile and priest are virtually synonymous in the public’s mind, yet the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church has not crumbled. Richard Jenkins’ unseen psycho-therapist estimates that six percent of priests are abusers, so perhaps the devoted flock merely continue to rationalise that it’s not happening in their particular backyard.
In the UK, the attention has mostly been focussed on celebrity paedophiles over the past few years, but it hasn’t stop the supposed bastion of illumination that is the media from shutting the conversation down when really dangerous ground is encroached upon (Tom Watson daring to suggest Edward Heath might have been up to no good; even Private Eye got in on righteously lambasting Watson, indicating its establishment-pricking veneer extends only so far); a few sacrificial celebs and dead MPs are fine, just as long as they don’t lead really high up the pole. The result is the further erosion of already long-since undercut faith in the media (what place investigative journalism in a world where most papers, owned by powerful corporations, cobble reports together from other news outlets and spend their greater energies on fatuous comment pieces?) and the increasing scouring of the Internet for the truth (be if legitimately-sourced or scuttlebutt).
Spotlight may be a little too restrained, too conscientious, too balanced, to take Oscar glory from flashier competitors (it was my tip for the top last month), and it’s certainly no surprise it missed out on a nomination for Best Score (Howard Shore’s drippy piano is a tad too reverential for my tastes). It might be appropriate to honour it now, though, before a movie with investigative journalism at its core needs to be set several decades in the past (rather than just the one) to be remotely plausible.