Mark Twain once said “the truth can be stranger than fiction,” but it must be made public first. The 2015 Oscar winner of Best Picture, Spotlight, based on actual events, tells the story of a team of investigative journalists who make up a section of The Boston Globe. In 2001, they revive a story from two decades prior about the Church burying a scandal involving a Catholic priest in Boston, accused of child molestation, through the legal system and its internal hierarchy. The Spotlight team subsequently earned the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in their efforts to reveal the Church’s cover-up of pedophilic clergymen.
Director Tom McCarthy co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, other writing credits of McCarthy’s include The Visitor (2007), and Win Win (2011). While this film lacked cinematic splendor, it made up for that in the terms of a compelling narrative. The actual Boston Globe reporters acknowledge that the cast of Spotlight stayed true to the events that transpired. McCarthy took some creative liberties with fictionalized dialogue, but he did nothing more that could undermine the very ideas of truth presented in the film. Though some may disagree, a good story will almost always drive a good film.
The film feels confident with its lack of flare or flavor in sweeping visuals. Not that this is a crime because Director of Photography Masanobu Takayanagi A.S.C., whose other credits include another biographical crime drama set in Boston, Black Mass (2015), understands the objective nature of a film narrative grounded in historical events. The cinematography does its best to supplement the story and tell it with precision akin to the reporters’ precision in handling their story. McCarthy shot the film in linear format and relied more on controlled handheld camera shots than organic movement for shots outside of the Boston Globe offices. Static shots of the Globe’s interior offices captured events as they unfolded.
Though the narrative is strong, it is the editing that tells the final story and must deserve equal praise. The film keeps at a steady pace, which is interesting to note because of the historicity. Life never occurs at any sort consistent pace, but McCarthy manages to keep the film moving like a thriller rather than like a drama. Events unfold at sharp turns; the surprises of a true story still catch an audience off guard fifteen years after the fact. It never feels rushed even as the crack team of investigators attempts to stay on top of a story. One example of this is a sequence where the Spotlight team listens to Mike Rezendes’ (played by Mark Ruffalo) source talk about his metrics on the number of priests guilty of indecency. The source, Richard Sipe, is a former Catholic priest who worked at Catholic rehabilitation and treatment centers meant for the guilty priests. Takayanagi films the scene with a slow dollying outward shot as the team sits around a phone listening to Sipe reveal his statistics. The team concludes that points to an even larger number of guilty priests than previously implicated. Editor Tom McArdle complements this with a sharp cut to the editor Ben Bradlee’s (played by John Slattery) shock as the team delivers the news to him in his office. This shock comes at roughly the same time that the audience has caught on to the impact of the discovery.
Alongside impressive cuts, McCarthy and McArdle make usage of montage to convey tension and emotion. Two simple, and perhaps overlooked moments, are the library records and the newspaper press montages. The first presents the unburying of information and documents that had existed for a long time within the public eye. Anxiety and doubt reigns over viewers as they wonder if the evidence would ever land in the hands of Spotlight. Release follows when the large stack is handed from the librarian to the team. The second montage includes a succession of shots showing the Globe’s printing presses scrolling down multiple angles. This entire sequence feels like an army of words, rather than swords, on the march. McCarthy tops this off with the fleet of Globe delivery trucks filing out from their headquarters to the streets of Boston. The truth sets out into the world with visual literality. Simplicity is its own complexity.
Howard Shore, whose credits include The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Seven (1995), The Departed (2006), Eastern Promises (2007), and The Hobbit trilogy, provides the score with expressive piano melodies that escalate the tension and the chase of the story. One excellent point of note is a children’s church choir singing during Christmas, which serves as a counterpoint to a montage of the reporters gathering their victims’ stories before publishing. The choice proves immediate and effective in conveying the corruption that has afflicted the city for decades. Again, like the cinematography, the score never seeks the spotlight for itself as it supports the narrative.
Like the film as a whole, the cast is immersed in subtlety. Few moments are given to the Spotlight team’s personal lives. Despite this, the ensemble cast gave a stellar and cohesive performance where no one part stood out. Together, they delivered a gripping narrative that resonates with Spotlight’s efforts. The actors’ undying commitment to the art matches the reporters’ undying commitment to the truth.