Spotlight has stimulated debate among mainstream critics and also seems to have prompted a specific film distribution pattern. The film opened in the UK with good promotional material and awards buzz but was then met with a contradictory critical reception. In short this meant high praise for the cast, recognition of an exciting and solid story but also complaints that the film is stylistically dull and that it isn’t ‘cinematic’. The film’s defenders accept that the film is ‘old-fashioned’ but argue that it is doing what the best Hollywood storytelling used to do – namely take a good story and tell it well.
The response of the distributor eONE and the exhibitors has been to treat the film as a one-off, giving it a wide release but marketing it somewhere between a specialised film and the big prestige awards films – at least that’s how it feels up our way. When I watched it last week there was a healthy audience for a ‘Silver Screen’ spot in the afternoon but Picturehouses were only giving it one screening a day in Bradford (it wasn’t any longer showing at Cineworld across the road), despite the fact that it was still in the Top 10 after three weekends. Across the rest of the country it appeared to be on 345 screens. Have eONE targeted the largest Catholic communities? Or are they avoiding the Catholic market? It was on in just three other cinemas in Leeds/Bradford with a large Catholic population locally. I’m baffled.
Spotlight tells the ‘real’ story of the investigatory journalism team on the Boston Globe which in 2002 finally exposed the decades of child sexual abuse by parish priests in the city that had been covered up by church authorities since the 1960s. The ‘Spotlight’ team comprised just four reporters and they are the focus of the narrative plus news editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) and new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). The team leader is played by Michael Keaton with Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James as the other reporters. Stanley Tucci rounds out the excellent investigatory side as a crusading lawyer. Billy Crudup is the only star name in the bad guys as a DA complicit in the cover-up (or is he?).
All the performances are excellent which suggests that director Tom McCarthy must be doing something right. He is himself an experienced actor and this is his fifth feature – but his first film on a large scale. The $20 million budget is twice what he has managed before and means that even with its current $50 million worldwide box office, Spotlight will have to keep attracting new audiences for a while yet to go into the black. I thoroughly enjoyed the film but later I had two thoughts. Though I hate the sloppy way people dismiss films that “could have been made for TV” I was surprised to remember that my best memories of newsroom drama came from the TV series Lou Grant (1977-82) with Ed Asner as the City Editor. That show made more of a melodrama about the lives of reporters and the subjects of their investigations (which often covered serious social issues) and I think that was partly why I enjoyed it (alongside enjoying anything leftist coming out of the US entertainment industries). Spotlight takes a more distanced sober approach. It claims to be ‘targeting the system’ – which I take to be the Catholic hierarchy and the lawyers who help them cover their tracks. I don’t think that the script at any time really questions why these things happened – or confronts Cardinal Law or other church figures, asking why they acted as they did. It also pulls back when it seems that interviewees might get too emotional. When I suggested this to others who had seen the film they said that the film would not have got a release – “they wouldn’t allow it”. Perhaps they are right, but this would confirm just how damaged the US has been by various religious groups. It’s very disturbing. Whatever you think of my analysis, however, do see the film. You won’t notice its lack of stylistic flourishes – you’ll be too busy following the story.