Anyone who makes a film set in a big-city newspaper office is required by law to include certain elements: the scene in which a reporter asks an editor for more time on a story, the thunderous rolling of the printing presses when that story is completed. And sure enough, those scenes are present and correct in “Spotlight”, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday. But, overall, it’s impressive how restrained and cliché-resistant “Spotlight” is. Thomas McCarthy, its co-writer-director, has made a streamlined docu-drama that’s as functional, well made and unshowy as the beige chinos its characters all wear. And even when he includes a moment that has been in 100 previous newspaper yarns, such as the one where a reluctant key witness finally agrees to come forward, he sneaks it in so quickly and quietly that you hardly notice it.
It’s understandable. “Spotlight” recounts how in 2001, journalists from the Boston Globe uncovered the child abuse committed by 80 Catholic priests in the city, and, more importantly, how they proved that this abuse had been systematically hushed-up by senior church figures. It’s a subject that could have led all too easily to a sensationalist and exploitative film, so McCarthy was sensible to treat the matter carefully. But perhaps a tiny bit of sensationalism would have helped “Spotlight” shine more brightly. As gratifying as it is to see Michael Keaton in another starring role at Venice, a year after his dizzying comeback in “Birdman”, he’s in a film that benefits from his twitchy energy rather than matching it.
Keaton plays the leader of the Globe’s four-person Spotlight team, two of his colleagues being a calm Rachel McAdams and an eager Mark Ruffalo. Their brief—and the arc of the film—is to spend several months delving into each assignment, a luxury that will make anyone who has worked in a newsroom shed a nostalgic tear. Like all 21st-century newspaper films, “Spotlight” is a kind of costume drama. It’s an elegy to a bygone era when reporters had the time and resources to get away from their desks: Keaton and co. spend their days and nights knocking on doors and leafing through folders, without worrying about being scooped by Twitter or made redundant in the meantime. What they learn is that Boston is full of people who know all about paedophilia in the priesthood, but almost empty of people willing to speak up about it: causing trouble for the Church is viewed as being disloyal to the city itself, hence it takes a new editor (Liev Schreiber) from out of town to push on the investigation.
Any disagreement about how the story should be handled, though, is quite civilised: there is less swearing in the Boston Globe building than in any newspaper office in history—or any kind of office, for that matter. Outside the building, the conflicts are even more polite: various genial pillars of the community suggest, smilingly, that the team should stop rocking the boat, but that's as menacing as things ever get. It’s easy to imagine a version of the film in which a reporter gets in a fight, or receives threatening letters, or falls out with a religious spouse. It would be easy, too, to imagine a fictionalised priest grooming his next victim, only to be stopped in the nick of time. But “Spotlight” is above all that. Again, it was honourable of McCarthy to avoid Hollywood histrionics, but the absence of emotional highs and lows does mean that the drama is never desperately gripping. There is some concern that another newspaper will break the story before the Globe—but there’s no sign that that might actually happen. The most nail-biting question is whether Ruffalo will be allowed to use the photocopier in a records office one afternoon, or whether he’ll have to come back the following morning.
“Spotlight” is mature, substantial, and ultimately moving. It’s a celebration of journalists doing a methodical, responsible job—and McCarthy has done one, too. The trouble is that methodical, responsible jobs don’t always bring about the most thrilling films.
Spotlight will be released in America on November 6th and in Britain on January 29th 2016