Tom McCarthy’s latest film, tipped to win big at this year’s Oscars, is an interesting, very grown-up prospect: the tale of how a small team of journalists (a 4-person team sharing its name with the movie) were brave enough to tackle a terrifying scandal in 2001: the abuse of children by Catholic priests. To shed light on this important piece of history, McCarthy has assembled a big-name cast – Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James (best known for his theatre work) make up the Spotlight team, with Mad Men alumnus John Slattery and Liev Schreiber as their immediate superiors at newspaper The Boston Globe. All of them give un-showy, subtle performances that really help to sell the idea of this bunch of intrepid, dogged reporters hungry for a big story and willing to do what it takes to unveil the truth.
It does however mean that – with the possible exceptions of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams – none of these formidable acting talents really get a chance to shine. As good as he is, Keaton is given very little to play with, and the script doesn’t seem particularly interested in digging into the characters’ back stories or getting us to warm to them. Of course, when you consider the subject of the film, the fact that we don’t learn much about the journalists doesn’t seem like a big deal, and you could argue that it shows a great deal of control on McCarthy’s part to ensure that the focus is always on the scandal and not on the people peeling back the layers of this mass cover-up. But it also prevents the film from being as engaging as perhaps it could be: we are offered brief glimpses into the characters’ lives outside their jobs but not much more than that.
Academy Award nominees Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes) and Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), both of whom received nods for their supporting performances, turn out to be the main draws here. McAdams presents a tenacious, compassionate reporter – the sole female in the Spotlight team, but never defined as such. She is the one tasked with interviewing most of the victims and there are some effective and touching scenes between Pfeiffer and Joe Crowley, played by Michael Cyril Creighton. She maintains a veneer of calm professionalism throughout, even in the face of some harrowing accounts of abuse, and McAdams excels in the series of two-handers her character experiences over the course of the film. At the other extreme, Ruffalo’s character is a twitchy, restless but determined guy: Rezendes uses some very different methods to Pfeiffer but they both get results, and more than anything else Spotlight underlines the importance of working as a team in the cut-throat world of high-stakes journalism.
All in all, Spotlight proves to be a sensitive account of a scandal that in other hands could easily have been sensationalized. From the grainy shots to matey jokes always tinged with bitterness (but then you’d hardly expect a barrel of laughs), McCarthy’s film is pretty relentlessly serious and I wouldn’t recommend it for those who like their movies with lots of high-octane thrills and spills. After all, Spotlight is highlighting how insidiously the attitude that enables this level of abuse without consequences is embedded in society: everyone the team encounters in their quest for the truth is evasive and shifty, refusing to reveal information without a struggle. As one character puts it, “A guy leans on a guy and a whole town turns its head.” It makes for low-key but intriguing viewing, and a film that doesn’t rely on explosions or flailing fists to get your attention.