When The Guardian released its list of the top news stories of 2015, readers found some startling statistics placed alongside one another. The 1,125 people killed by police officers in the U.S. were listed alongside the $517 million Star Wars: The Force Awakens grossed during its opening weekend. The 4.4 million Syrian refugees who were forced to flee their homes were listed alongside the 3.3 million ‘likes’ 2015’s most-liked Instagram photograph received. This is an issue which director Tom McCarthy, who has openly criticised the degeneration of news into the realm of entertainment, attempts to tackle in his latest film, Spotlight.
Spotlight focuses on the real life local newspaper, The Boston Globe, and the paper’s 2002 story about large numbers of Catholic priests who were perpetrators of child abuse and the systematic cover up of this abuse by the Roman Catholic Church and local lawyers. The story was researched and written by the Boston Globe’s investigative team, Spotlight, and after over a year of work led to the exposure of 249 guilty priests and more than 1000 victims in the Boston area alone. For their work, the Spotlight team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in journalism. The film focuses not only on the necessity of high-quality, local journalism, but also on takes on a serious subject (a subject which has nevertheless become the target of many poorly aimed jokes) and humanises it from every angle.
It is impossible to forget that not only the victims, but also the perpetrators, the conspirators, the bystanders, and the journalists, are all based on real people whose realities we are only glimpsing. This focus on the individual emphasises the need for strong local news as a vehicle to represent the common man and give the common man not only a voice, but an honest and impartial protective body. The cast, and in particular Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, bring this complexity to their characters, and the conflicting choices which each must face only emphasises the difficulty in navigating such a controversial subject, something the film does very sensitively.
The only criticism which can be made of the Spotlight cast, a criticism by no means limited to this film alone, is that it is almost entirely white and male. While the main cast are true to the characters they are portraying in terms of their appearance, the lack of a diverse crew or secondary cast in a film which focuses on the power of the media to give a voice to minorities and vulnerable groups, seems at the very least a little hypocritical. The film does however deal well with such a difficult subject matter; it is honest without being cliché, frightening without being overly graphic, builds suspense without the need for shock value, and is fast paced without losing more intimate and thoughtful scenes.
The film’s merits have earned it recognition with nominations and wins from The Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Satellite Awards, the BAFTA Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Critic’s Choice Awards, in a variety of categories. In particular, Spotlight did well at the Boston Society of Film Critics Association, winning Best Film, Screenplay, and Ensemble. The association, which celebrates local engagement in particular within the film industry, is a fitting supporter of a film advocating so strongly for the resurgence of local journalism, and the support of local communities. Let’s hope the Oscars will follow their lead.