“If it takes a village to raise a child,” says an ill-tempered prosecuting lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, “it takes a village to abuse one.” This is the thesis of “Spotlight”, about the Pulitzer-winning investigative team from the Boston Herald and its 2001 campaign to uncover widespread, systemic child abuse by the city’s Catholic priests. Co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who has previously directed comedies such as “The Station Agent” and “Win Win”, the film is as meticulous in pursuit of its story as the journalists at its centre. Michael Keaton (pictured, left) plays the careworn editor of the team, Robby Robinson; John Slattery plays the section chief, Ben Bradlee Jr; Rachel McAdams is one of the reporters, alongside Mark Ruffalo (pictured, right), who lives in a flat filled with empty takeaway cartons, and follows people in and out of rooms leaving a space of about ten centimetres between them.
Ruffalo is the best thing in the movie, but then he so frequently is: he acts with his entire body, brow furrowed, follow-up questions ready, leaning in like a hound keen to get off leash. Journalists in need of a reminder as to why they chose their particular career path will be overjoyed. Set almost entirely amid the fluorescent cubicles of a modern-day newsroom, with the occasional dashes for the courthouse document library, the model for the film is clearly Alan Pakula’s “All The President’s Men”, which benefited from its tight, unrelenting focus on Woodward and Bernstein as they tugged on the thread that would unravel the Nixon presidency. Interestingly, the word “Watergate” is rarely spoken in that film. Take out all mention of the break-in and you would still have, thanks to Gordon Willis’s cinematography, a study in the empty spaces and paranoia of the Nixon-era.
I’m not sure similar can be said of “Spotlight”, as intelligent a film as you could wish for, nursing a finely controlled sense of moral outrage, but whose second hour widens the first without quite deepening it. “We had all the pieces,” says Keaton after he finds that key pieces of evidence were buried in his own newspaper. “Why didn’t we get it sooner?” Credit would seem to accrue to Liev Schreiber’s new-broom editor Marty Baron – “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball”, in the words of one suspicious Bostonian – who resists the lure of clubbability and sets the investigation in motion. But Baron is soon put to one side as the focus of dramatic interest, as each character takes turns to share key expository duties and make sure we understand how the church rotated 87 priests from parish to parish on “sick leave” to keep them hidden.
We keep hearing how forcefully the church is going to react when confronted, but it never really happens – the ogre never appears. Never mind – the film’s already being tipped as front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars and it’s not hard to see why. After Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dizzying superhero deconstruction “Birdman” pipped Richard Linklater’s gentle, mild-mannered Bildungsroman “Boyhood” to the post last year, the Academy would love to respond to the charge of industry solipsism with a consensus builder as solidly engagé as McCarthy’s “Spotlight”. Iñárritu is back with another picture, “The Revenant”, a grunge western starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but the picture’s promise of mud, blood and revenge, together with Iñárritu’s victory last year, make for an unlikely follow-up, as far as the voters go.
The tone and theme of this year’s Oscar is more likely to take its cue from Patricia Arquette’s back-stage comment last year, “It’s our time.” Derided as a piece of feminist foot-stamping – enough with the African-Americans and gays! – Arquette’s comment might well be heeded by the Oscar Gods. 2016 is shaping up as Year of the Woman, with Carey Mulligan leading the charge as an Edwardian sweatshop worker turned activist in Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette”; Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop, in David O. Russell’s as-yet-unseen “Joy”; as well as Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett who enjoy a sapphic 1950s-era romance in Todd Haynes’s “Carol” – all female-led films, and all likely Best Picture contenders as well. Russell, nominated multiple times without a win, is the year’s most deserving auteur.
This year’s “American Sniper” – the one big studio film, raking in huge profits without recourse to a superhero costume – is Ridley Scott’s buoyant Robinson Crusoe-in-space crowd-pleaser “The Martian”, which looks set to follow Sniper’s lead and collect nominations in multiple categories, before exiting with a handful of technical awards. The biggest dark horse for me is John Crowley’s “Brooklyn”, with Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant shop girl torn between rival suitors in two countries – the stuff of coming-of-age melodramas, but in the hands of Nick Hornby, who adapted Colm Tóibín’s original novel, the film cuts deep. It’s a powerful portrayal of a brave soul in transition. You leave convinced not just that growing up is Hornby’s true subject, but that it’s really the only subject worth tackling. “Brooklyn” is a lesson in what happens when everything – writing, performance, direction – clicks mysteriously into place. Magic.
Spotlight opens in Britain on Jan 29th. Out now in America