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Review of Spotlight

Spotlight:  USA 2015 – Director Tom McCarthy [128 mins]

The film Spotlight has been in the spotlight since winning its Oscar for best film and best original screenplay. If not on the page, not on the screen, as the Hollywood cliché goes! So you may be familiar with the plot, the characters and the outcome. I’m going to focus on the cinematic qualities that to my mind found favour with those who voted, not discounting the content.

The content, (the unfolding, disclosing and suppression of uncomfortable truths), and the style, (the cinematic language and techniques, the how), are like two sides of the one coin, go together like a hand and glove. What the members of the Academy who voted love.

Spotlight stands out, especially in the light of its filmic forebears, particularly All the President’s Men and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, recently voted the best film of all time by Sight and Sound cinefiles.

All three involve detective work of high intensity, full of dramatic tension, climaxing in an unlikely resolution. All three balance intense interior shots with many outdoor shots, especially all the Churches and convents in the background, all much larger than the surrounding buildings. The architecture speaks volumes in the context of the investigation into clerical sexual perversion, political corruption and a murder of a mysterious wife.

The Hitch classic is the latent layer or echo in Spotlight. Not only the main character and the group of Boston Globe journalists are enlisted to find the truth of a particular dark story, against the odds, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles put in the way by vested interests in keeping the story repressed. For Freud, repression is the foundation stone of the unconscious, so these films evoke that level in our thinking, (and dreaming). Is that why they resonate with us moviegoers?

Remember James Bond and Dr No? Not many of us in 1962 spotted Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in her bikini as an updated homage to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The vertigo and the depths of perversion lend a binary structure to these two films, both involving delicate detective work.

The abuse, covered up by Cardinal Law (ironic double meaning!), and the Watergate scandal, and the wife’s mysterious secret, involved hard evidence and court co-operation, that were not immediately forthcoming, especially sealed church records. In fact one of the most memorable and moving scenes in Spotlight is of the journalists plodding away in musty archives, like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Distinguishing what’s true from what’s fabricated, who to believe, is a unifying thread underlying all three films. The stakes were high for the Boston Globe, in post 9/11 USA, for had they not had ‘bulletproof’ truth, the backlash could have been devastating for a city where 40 % of the populace identify as Catholic, not however, as devastating as the victims of Fr Geoghan, whose interviews are heart-rending to say the least.

The precise framing and fluent tracking shots are so reminiscent of Vertigo, albeit more subdued and less sophisticated, suiting the documentary genre, as distinct from Hitch’s more flamboyant filmic flourishs, such as all the paintings on the walls of his plush interiors.

Spotlight is notable for the absence of any anti-clerical liberal views, or any church bashing. Just the sheer awfulness of the crime, notwithstanding its “genuine psychiatric phenomenon” which is the case in Vertigo.

Spotlight is honest enough to include a previous repression of evidence against itself, which shows how tough it is to be a whistle-blower, or to speak truth to Power, whether it be politician, clerical or familial.

So this is all a roundabout way of saying that Spotlight deserves its Oscar, against tough opposition from quality films such as our own Brooklyn, because of its deep cinematic echoes and identification with its antecedent conspiracy thrillers, investigating an erring presidency or institutions of “cloaked impenetrability”. But when The Club is released this month, Spotlight will seem mild in its horrific story of “the sins of the Fathers”.

Brendan Staunton SJ