As a medium, cinema is multi-faceted, capable of layering visuals, sound, performances, editing and special effects. Often it leads to flashy, stylised films that catch our attention through creativity. It’s why last year’s Oscar winning best film was Birdman, and why this year the nominees include the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Big Short.
Sometimes, though, you just have to point and shoot.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but with Spotlight director Tom McCarthy makes filmmaking look easy. There are no swooping camera shots, no sudden edits, no CGI extravagance. The camera is still, the editing calm and Howard Shore’s beautifully plaintive piano-based score lilts quietly in the background. This is hushed, reverent filmmaking made purely to serve the narrative.
And when that narrative focuses on the church, the reverence is all the more fitting. Based on fact, the film depicts a small team of investigative journalists (Spotlight) who worked at the Boston Globe newspaper in the early 00s to uncover child sex abuse in the Catholic church. What begins as an investigation into one priest soon develops into a widespread crisis not just in Boston, but across the whole of America (and eventually the globe) as the team essentially accuse the whole Catholic system of covering up the truth and magnitude of the scandal.
The quiet tone of the film draws attention to the unfurling plot that’s expertly paced in Josh Singer and McCarthy’s screenplay. It might be slow, but it’s never less than thoroughly gripping, gradually drawing us in to its conclusion. It’s a provocative and often shocking subject matter that’s all the more pronounced for its unfussy production. And in that manner, the smallest moments have a huge impact: a children’s choir singing, or an old woman reading the finished newspaper story. There are no words here and the camera doesn’t linger – it’s just subtle enough that we understand the layers of meaning.
The film also works as a fascinating exploration of life as a journalist. We follow the team on each stage of their investigation, from initial research, to tough interviews, conflicts in editorial meetings, and finally the thrill of writing the story. Over time, their passion for the subject is overwhelming and it all becomes too personal for the team. It’s Mark Ruffalo’s twitching, restless Mike Rezendes who shows the most passion of all, which is probably why he’s been singled out for a best supporting actor nomination. Rachel McAdams (nominated for best supporting actress) also holds her own as Sacha Pfeiffer – the only female journalist in a male dominated world – but this really is an ensemble performance. Making the film is as much a team effort as the investigation itself, and with its quiet confidence this eye-opening story could well take Oscar victory.
Watch: Spotlight is out now.