Old-school investigation films like All The President's Men, The Parallax View and, to some extent, Zodiac all had a few common markers between them. Very often, it's a team of outsiders who band together in the face of overwhelming odds and entrenched powerhouses that seek to stop them at every turn. They were powerful, fantastic films - but only come along once every few years. Spotlight is now of that same ilk; an intelligent, well-made investigation film about something that's particularly close to Ireland - the Catholic Church's systematic cover-up of child abuse.
The film begins with Liev Schreiber joining The Boston Globe as its Managing Editor and meeting with fellow journalist Michael Keaton, who heads up the Spotlight team of the film's title. Their mission statement is simple - thoroughly investigate stories, regardless of where they made lead and publish. Schreiber's character discovers a story about how a pedophile priest was sexually abusing children and the Archbishop of Boston effectively covered it up. Keaton's character, at first, is reticent to investigate the story but relents and sets his team on course. Mark Ruffalo plays a nervy reporter who "likes weirdos", whilst Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James work out the background data of the story. As the team slowly edges towards the horrifying truth, they begin to come up against increased resistance from both the Church and Boston itself. Parallel to this, Stanley Tucci plays an Armenian lawyer who's been hunting the Church for years on the topic and is reluctant to aid Spotlight's investigation. What the film makes abundantly clear is that there is no real moment of drama that cracks a story such as this wide open. It's a slow, considered process that eventually opens up its black core for all to see. While it may not necessarily be thrilling in the conventional sense, the film perfectly captures the realisation that something truly awful happened under their nose and almost nobody was looking for it - or didn't want to look for it.
The ensemble cast of Keaton, Schreiber, McAdams, Ruffalo and Tucci work so well with one another that's there barely an inch of daylight between them. The dialogue feels unfettered, unembellished and real - exactly how you'd expect these conversations took place. Keaton continues his hot streak of finely tuning his performance to the character's needs; acting as the calm and rational centre to Ruffalo's high-strung enthusiasm and McAdam's initial reluctance. Schreiber, meanwhile, gives a truly understated performance as the editor who sets them on the path and urges them onward, despite their own reservations. The performances, right around the cast list, are spot-on - but they're all so muted and realistic that it doesn't necessarily jump out at your right away. That is, however, not counting Stanley Tucci as the irascible Mitchell Garaedian. When he's first introduced, you're supposed to think of him as a crackpot. But, like the investigation itself, more is revealed and we see the character's reasonings in a brilliant scene between he and Ruffalo in a public park.
Tom McCarthy's direction is quiet and assuming, just like the characters in the film itself. There are no wondrous moments of cinematography or fascinating camera angles - because that would take away from the script itself and, in a way, cheapen the importance of what their story. It doesn't need flashy tricks to get its point across; it doesn't need non-linear editing or a rip-roaring soundtrack to tell you when there's something important on screen. It does in such a minimalist way that it's only afterwards you realise how distracting it could have been were it given to anyone else. The film builds and builds on the investigation and, for better or worse, you're pulled along for the ride. By the end of Spotlight, there should be a dull anger in your chest as the epilogue rattles off the shameful history of the Catholic Church's atrocities.
An engaging, daring and brutally honest film that needs to be seen by every Irish man or woman, Spotlight ranks easily as one of the best films of 2016.