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Spotlight - review

Jan 21, 2016 Film & TV

Go into Spotlight expecting catharsis and you might leave disappointed. There’s little bombast here, no “you can’t handle the truth!” histrionics. I don’t remember any whisky glasses thrown at a wall, or desks banged in frustration. Because, as we’re reminded time and again throughout, that’s just not how journalism works.

In real life, you make phone calls, you knock on doors, you have conversations. You read so many documents your highlighter hand seizes up. And no matter the story you’re chasing, the guiding mantra is that of the Spotlight journalists: “So what happened then?” “And what happened after that?”

The great achievement of Spotlight is making the grunt work of investigative journalism as gripping as any thriller. Set in the early 2000s, the movie tells how the Boston Globe’s small Spotlight unit — veteran editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), twitchy, tenacious Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), calm and empathetic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and researcher extraordinaire Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — uncovered an epidemic of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, one that church authorities had conspired for decades to keep hidden.

In Spotlight, as the team works to bring those responsible to justice, the characters individually grapple with their own guilt. Mike’s marriage has been destroyed by his single-minded dedication to his job. Sacha dreads her devout grandmother discovering the truth about the Church she reveres. Matt fears that delays in the investigation will put his kids and their friends in danger. And Robby has to confront an editorial slip-up with potentially huge ramifications.

Co-writers Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (McCarthy also directed) drop these personal beats into the overarching journalistic narrative with admirable subtlety.

There’s so little that’s heavy-handed in Spotlight that the one moment of unbridled passion, a cri de coeur by Boston-born Rezendes that “It could have been you, it could have been me. It could have been any of us!” feels somewhat tacked on, as if Singer and McCarthy realised at the last minute they didn’t have a speech quite stirring enough to be cut into the trailer.

In a just world, Mark Weldon, boss of TV3 parent company MediaWorks, would be held down and forced to watch Spotlight on a loop.

But Ruffalo carries it off. Of course he does: every performance, including Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as lawyers and Liev Schreiber and John Slattery as the Globe’s editor and publisher respectively, is superb. Hollywood rumour has it that all eight of them are being put forward for supporting-actor Oscars*, and none for lead — testament to a truly ensemble cast.

Acting is teamwork, and so is journalism. Both professions are about telling stories — some entertainingly trivial, some important enough to bring down institutions or save lives. Those who work at Metro, North & South, New Zealand Listener and the Herald know this, as did those at TV3’s Campbell Live and 3D. In a just world, Mark Weldon, boss of TV3 parent company MediaWorks, would be held down and forced to watch Spotlight on a loop.


This article was first published in the January/February issue of Metro

*Since this article was first published, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo have been nominated for their respective supporting roles.


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