Have you heard the tip about how to look important in an office? You should march around, clutching paper and look serious. Even if you have nowhere to be in a hurry (indeed the paper could be blank), no-one will bother you.
The investigative team within The Boston Globe known asSpotlight clearly know this trick. They stride, with purpose, sometimes even with a pen in their mouth, like a veritable bit between their teeth.
Easy to mock and cinematic soufflé it may be, but Spotlight is brilliant. It’s just that films like this suffer the same true story problems. We probably already broadly know the outcome and no matter how engrossing their struggle, method and motive, plot points can still appear like trip hazards and drama has to be generated in between. Even the peerless All The President's Men suffered these problems. Hoffman and Redford’s journos would type frantically to demonstrate their passion, but modern keyboards don’t have the same romantic weight of weathered typewriters.
Hence the marching around.
But just like Watergate, the premise is huge. The mere idea of it is shocking. The Spotlight team were the ones that uncovered the world-wide systemic abuse within the Catholic Church and the investigation started in their home-town of Boston, where it would be akin to betraying God. It takes an outsider, new editor Liev Schreiber, to push it forward onto Michael Keaton’s team.
Another problem with films like this is that you have to separate the story from the production. The scandal is one of the biggest of recent years and it’s utterly horrific, but nevertheless, does it make a good film? Yes, in this case, but it takes effort, especially when some implied twists never come to pass. As a villain, the Catholic Church is powerful, shadowy, threatening and from a narrative perspective, frustratingly toothless. There is a sense the team are one step away from a brick through their window or a mysterious house-fire, but it never comes to pass.
The angry silliness of A Time To Kill wouldn't be appropriate here, but The Verdict had a similar Catholic corruption plot. That film was able to pit James Mason against Paul Newman to memorable effect. Admittedly, it also had the advantage of the theatrics of the courtroom and an Erin Brokovich style focus on one troubled warrior fighting the system. Annoyingly, Spotlight as a team are really very good at their jobs.
So if we’re to watch smoke and mirrors, it all comes down to the casting and the delivery and Spotlight is breathtakingly good in that regard. Normally Ben Affleck is the guy you want for Boston stories, but director Tom McCarthy has wrought an impressive piece of classy film-making, working from his own screenplay with Josh Singer. (Singer's West Wing experience likely helped). This is somewhat at odds with his McCarthy's previous work. He started with the marvellous Station Agent, but his last film was The Cobbler. Don’t hold that against him though! Spotlight is confident and entertaining, yet powerful and emotional.
The cast is extraordinary. Reliable character actors like John Slattery and Stanley Tucci are brilliant in smaller parts. In one of the most prominent roles as the sub-editor in charge of the Spotlight team, Michael Keaton turns up as Michael Keaton, but that's a good thing. He says “Spotlight!” like “I'm Batman!” and he's a very strong anchor for both the team and the film. An old hand, respected in the city that still thinks it's a town, he has to fend off the strongest attempts to scupper the investigation. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in setting him deal with the underhand tactics.
It's great to see Liev Schreiber back in a prominent role too. Quietly confident and quietly awkward. He’s the newcomer who won't mix in, but knows what he's doing and sees no reason to be arrogant about it. Fascinating character. He’s the most memorable role outside the Spotlight team, but in less capable hands he could easily have been Leslie Nielsen in Airplane. He brings calm to a plot that could so easily have been driven by ego.
The film is almost stolen by Mark Ruffalo though with a stunning performance. He's always good, so it's almost disingenuous to say he's never been better, but there is something special about his role here. The tension builds around his workaholic reporter until frustrations explode into a blistering scene with Keaton. He deserves the Academy Award nomination and should win it.
Spotlight does an exemplary job of avoiding clichés, or at least disguising them, and Rachel McAdams is no exception. It would be easy to scoff that the only female team member is the one with the most emotional storyline, but it works. Along with Brian d'Arcy James, she is excellent at keeping the investigation grounded, interviewing the devastated victims who have lived with the shame of abuse; or the brief and understated scenes with her grandma, a devout Catholic. She is a moving example of how hard the story will hit the community.
And that community would be scarred. Probably still are. The film is very successful at demonstrating how proud Boston is, but the story had to break. It had to be told.
It was worth filming it too. As true stories go, it needed an exceptional screenplay and cast. Spotlight is testament to the incredible work the Boston Globe did.