There’s a sense of the years being rolled back in Tom McCarthy’s gripping, Oscar-worthy journalism drama Spotlight. On the one hand, there’s almost a nostalgia that comes with watching – and participating in – the craft of meticulous, urgent and dedicated long-form journalism. When there’s talk of deadlines, it’s all about whether the reporters can build a strong enough case in time; the modern medium is blighted by a clamour for clicks and the rush to publish. Fact checks be damned. On the other hand is the impressive feat of crafting such a superb example of fiercely intelligent, mid-budget, mature cinema, the likes of which is all the more rarely seen in this day and age and certainly not this accomplished.
McCarthy may not have seemed the obvious choice for tackling the tale of the eponymous ‘deep focus’ team at the Boston Globe who, in the early 2000s won a Pulitzer for their expose on abuse in the Catholic Church which subsequently sent ructions throughout Christendom. His last film was 2014’s The Cobbler and the leap from that to Spotlight is one for the ages. However, McCarthy is himself a lapsed-Catholic, and his film is one that deftly probes the still-raw scars of complicity – or sheer wilful blindness – that communities have had to deal with in the wake of the revelations. An outsider, Liev Schreiber as the newly installed editor, is the only one without the baggage to see the endemic corruption for what it is. All of the other major characters in the film have varying relationships to the church in Boston and are struck with questions of faith, and otherwise, as their excavation unveils the true size of their terrible discovery.
That dig to get to the truth is the real crux of Spotlight, to a surprisingly single-minded degree. Supporting drama is kept to a minimum with the guilt of priests and the torment of victims left largely on the sidelines despite being the more overtly dramatic material (the upcoming release of Pablo Larrain’s excellent The Club would make a fitting companion piece, from that opposite angle). Instead, lifted by the memories of All the President’s Men and its ilk, McCarthy champions the unflagging search of the story with the same dogged resolution as the Spotlight journalists, played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. Ruffalo gets one or two shouty scenes – and thus gets the Supporting Actor Oscar nod over the nuances of Keaton – but the entire cast is on exceptional form underplaying and letting the narrative tell itself.
Their performances all chime perfectly with McCarthy’s directorial style which is fastidiously plain. In every respect, Spotlight is a film that allows the story to take the lead and ceaselessly follows wherever it goes using the edit to layer the momentum. This allows for complex religious relationships, tense newsroom drama and a tenacious quest, all without exploiting, or sanitising, the scale and horror of the abuse. That grand prose may not be written about its individual elements is to the film’s eternal credit; instead, it’s as a scrupulous whole that Spotlight truly shines as one of the year’s finest and most compelling dramas.