Monday, 8 February 2016

Film Review: Spotlight

As a good budding journalist, Spotlight was of course top of my to-watch list from the current crop of Oscar favourites. The film is beginning to look like it could do pretty well this awards season, despite not taking home any Golden Globes; its popularity has risen from a dark horse position, and it now seems tipped to get the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. In case you haven't heard of it, IMDB describes the movie as "The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core."

For me, the immediate point of reference is Argo. Both films have a strange knack of making bureaucratic montages of lists and documents incredibly gripping. They also both tend to choose the heroes and villains of the piece early on, and present us with a core (all-white, as many have noted regarding the Oscar nominations as a whole) cast of characters who are just trying to do the right thing.

There is something about Spotlight which captured me. Yes, some scenes depend a little too heavily on the Good-Guy-Journalist trope, but much of it is incredibly naturalistic. Two parallel scenes in which Joe (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha (Rachel McAdams) each interview an abuse survivor stand out for me. They aren't overdone, the interviewees aren't positioned as plot devices alone, they are simply conversations which convey the huge impact the abuse has had on the lives of the victims. It is respectful, yet unflinching: both journalists emphasise the importance of opening up what really happened, rather than resorting to the euphemisms which the Church uses to obfuscate events.

Some reviewers have noted that the Church remains at arm's length throughout the film, with no real in-for-the-kill attack on it. This is certainly true to an extent, but what is really excellently portrayed is the omnipresence of the Church in Boston. We see how all of the central characters are at least tangentially affected by it. It's crucial that this is brought home for a global audience: viewers like me have no idea whether Boston is predominantly Catholic or Presbyterian, Jewish or Atheist. The sequence which I found most effective at emphasising that is a montage of the reporters interviewing more survivors, as well as police officers and other figures of the community. All the while, the little houses in the foreground are dwarfed by towering churches and cathedrals in the background, almost as though they are looming over the characters. It shows not just how crucial the Church is in people's lives, but also how many people knew about the repeated abuse but felt unable to speak out.

I usually talk about costumes in all the films I review on this blog, though this might seem like an odd one to look at: the costumes are all fairly standard early Noughties fare. It is rather gratifying to see the normal workaday clothing from that period - all rather similar to what we wear now - rather than the way ASOS presents the era: Bjork hair and ribbed crop-tops galore. What I'd mainly like to look at though is how the costume design works as part of a subtle map of visual references throughout.

You may have noticed in the posters that the film has a lot of pale shade in it: the light shirts of the journalists, their office walls and computers, the stacks of paper to sift through. This was one of the first things I noticed. The first few minutes are a nighttime scene, featuring a priest and cardinal in their usual black garb, so when it cuts to a white office full of journalists in pale shirts, the imagery is pretty clear. Angels and demons might be a bit of a stretch, but there's certainly an implication of that kind.

The journalists (left), and the Church figures (right)

A friend of mine also noted how there seemed to be a bit of a Godfather vibe every time figures from the Church were onscreen. From the dark clothes and hat in that first scene to the slimy appearances of Pete Conley (CSI's Paul Guilfoyle), there is certainly a Church mafia undertone here. The scene in which The Boston Globe's new editor visits the Cardinal, in a luxurious room of dark wood and books, is particularly reminiscent of The Don's office.

The Cardinal (left), and Marlon Brando in The Godfather (right)
The friendly way in which Conley and the Cardinal act seems contradictory to that, and so we as the audience are never sure who to trust: even some of the newspaper employees seem to have something to hide. Only Stanley Tucci's impeccable performance as Garabedian, a lawyer taking on a mountain of cases against Catholic priests, instills us with confidence. His corporate counterpart, Eric Macleish (played by Billy Crudup, who I'm glad to see hasn't disappeared since Stage Beauty), is far more ambiguous. In fact I got a strong Patrick Bateman vibe from him...

Christian Bale in American Psycho (left), and Billy Crudup as Macleish (right)
Whether intentional or not, this at least underscores the way corporate America, as ever, finds a way to captialise on everything: Macleish is accused of creating a "cottage industry" out of representing victims in their claims against the Church (which can only result in a capped settlement of $20,000) while doing nothing to address the ongoing problem.

There are undoubtedly more things to be noticed on a second viewing, and it's all of these small details which set the film apart for me. While the central journalistic plotline is riveting alone, the evocative depiction of Boston society is what really brings the whole thing alive.

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