Spotlight: Forgive Us, for We Have Sinned, by Scott Nye
The drama is inherent to the story. A group of reporters in a heavily-Catholic city uncover the Church’s routine practice of harboring priests who have raped children. They’re all locals, most of them lived there their whole lives. They have to contend with bias, prejudice, strong-arming, and outright threats in the path to uncovering what has been going on in their city, and potentially nationwide, over the past several decades. This process requires them to reexamine the basic assumptions they held about their city, their friends and loved ones, and indeed themselves. The drama in Spotlight is so inherent that one could say co-writer/director Tom McCarthy need hardly have done anything at all in telling the story for the screen. One could say, based on his approach, that he really didn’t. But no matter how “realistic” the veneer, a film is made by a process of decisions. And finally, McCarthy has started to make the right ones.
This is something of a significant departure for the filmmaker, who made his name with a series of small, modest-to-a-fault comedic dramas about ordinary people struggling with ordinary moral quandaries. Some would say this approach lead to ordinary movies. I know I would. That background, however, proves valuable for Spotlight, as the ordinariness drives much of the interest. This is a film about how one of the most significant pieces of journalism of the 21st century was compiled, but that compiling mostly involves a lot of reading, a lot of phone calls, a lot of repeat visits to people who don’t want to talk to you, and a few strokes of luck. This is everyday work for these people.
McCarthy (along with co-screenwriter Josh Singer) create entertainment from this by focusing on the people first. Almost obscenely well-cast, Spotlight relies on the talents of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and a slew of unknown but equally-capable character actors – many of whom have little more than a minute to accomplish anything – to quickly establish who everyone is and of what, proverbially speaking, they’re made. A slight bit of clumsiness, deliberately ignoring a joke, yelling into a phone, toasting a retiring colleague, politely answering the front door, impolitely slamming the front door; every new person is allowed to define him or herself. No character is purely functional. In the context of Hollywood cinema of the 1930s, this would not be so outlandish; in 2015, it’s a major, distinctive decision.
Filmed largely in the streets of Boston (with the offices of The Boston Globe on a soundstage in Toronto), McCarthy and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi find many avenues too often ignored by the slew of Boston-set crime pictures that have practically defined the city in the years since The Departed. Sure, they get into the down-and-out neighborhoods (it’s quickly established that priests targeted poor children who lacked a support system), but they emphasize in many direct ways the closeness of everything in the city. For a big city, Boston feels quite small when you live there. When Keaton and McAdams exit a rather telling meeting with higher-ups at Keaton’s high school, Keaton notes how everyone seemed to already know the story before them, “and we’re right there,” he says, nodding to the Boston Globe offices, which are indeed right there. When another reporter is going over the addresses of potentially-dangerous priests, he finds that many of them have been housed just around the corner from his own house. Churches are everywhere, just over the shoulder. These moments concretely establish the growing sense of complicity.
This sense of guilt, which pervades the picture, keeps it firmly out of the realm of mere “righteousness porn.” Yes, it’s absolutely rousing to see the gang gradually piece the story together, watch it grow and evolve and become bigger than they ever thought possible. But the investigation is not the drama. The guilt is the drama. They do their work with no small hesitation, knowing not only of the potential blowback from the Catholic community (which is to say, the majority of the city), but the sense that confirming this ignored truth will devastate something essential within themselves. One can be a lapsed, even former, Catholic, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy, so to speak. They’re still holding onto something, perhaps a hope that their childhood really was a more innocent time, or perhaps that the Church could still be a refuge in the future. Very little of this is spoken, but the actors communicate so much of it in their eyes, talking themselves into taking the next step in the investigation when their core says to just keep turning away. It’s not fear of authority, but the shame of the self. If it’s true, everyone is at fault, including themselves. The investigation becomes a sort of cleansing of the soul, impossible to erase, but hopefully to atone.