'Spotlight' Takes On The Catholic Church In Search Of The Truth

30 January 2016 | 8:48 am | Anthony Carew

"The story, which is initially focused on seven known paedophiles in the Boston area, soon widens in scope, in the belief that there’ll be 90. Instead, they find 220."


Befitting a film that’s an ode to old-fashioned journalism, Spotlight is about doing the hard work and taking the long way; both in its narrative and in its production. Oscar Season is filled with Based On A True Story films that fudge truths, create composite characters, and punch up facts with fictions, but Tom McCarthy’s movie is concerned only with what actually happened. It’s a sober, measured, never-theatrical picture of the Boston Globe reporters —the team of its flagship Spotlight unit— who uncovered evidence of the Catholic Church’s systematic protection of the paedophiles in its ranks; the way the manifold offenders were shuffled around from parish to parish, never punished, victims left in shameful silence.

When we first meet the team —grizzled Michael Keaton, wound-up Mark Ruffalo, unruffled Rachel McAdams, workhorse Brian d’Arcy James— they’ve just been saddled with a new boss. He’s Liev Schreiber, an outsider to Catholic, provincial, baseball-lovin’ Boston; a grumbling, mumbling, sports-agnostic who, gasp!, is Jewish. When he’s told that our heroes spend up to a year researching a story, you’re sure that there’s going to be some cost-cutting backlash coming their way. Instead, Schreiber’s that rarest of birds, a supportive editor(!), telling the team to think bigger, dig deeper. What they’re workin’ isn’t a story about a crime, but a cover-up.

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So, they get to work. They hit the phones and the streets. They take notes with pad-and-pen. They comb through old Church registers with rulers and highlighters. They interview victims, and push them on specifics; no one ever just ‘molested’, in abstract, in isolation. Eventually, the disembodied voice of a priest-turned-psychologist (Richard Jenkins!) becomes their soothsayer; he believing that the abuse isn’t a case of “a few bad apples”, but a “recognisable psychiatric phenomenon” that exists on a mass scale, in quantifiable numbers. The story, which is initially focused on seven known paedophiles in the Boston area, soon widens in scope, in the belief that there’ll be 90. Instead, they find 220.

Boston, as city, serves as character; McCarthy —who, after two excellent early films, 2003’s The Station Agent and 2007’s The Visitor, took an Adam Sandler paycheque with the execrable The Cobbler— quietly shooting symbolic street-scapes where grand spires tower over shitty Southy tenements. The script he co-wrote with Josh Singer (scribe o’ The Fifth Estate) suggests no flash; never submitting to genre, uncorking the tropes of thrillers, serving up stock villains. Instead of scandalous revelations and 11th-hour breakthroughs, there’s the accumulation of research, the noble virtues of hard work. It’s not a film about paranoia, or danger, or scandal, just people doing their jobs.

Spotlight is ultimately, both a shrine to their admirable toil and a lament for a vanishing trade. Its 2001 setting feels like a bygone age; its old-school, on-the-case journalists men of a different time; its loving portrayal of the newspaper business —the drama of the presses printing the story, hot copies hitting the streets— a valentine to a dying institution.


“What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” These are the questions asked by Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer-service guru, midway through what’s supposed to be a keynote speech at a sales seminar. Befitting the works of writer/director Charlie Kaufman, his speech becomes an existential ramble, a depressed person suffering a grand public meltdown; all dark catharsis and comic calamity. But the questions that he asks are the writer’s own questions; the things that Anomalisa turns over. And, with some irony, Kaufman explores what it means to be human via puppets.

Working with co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman has created a stop-motion-animated world filled with down-to-earth, realist details: the crease-lines on Michael’s trousers, the glowing lights from vending machine or taxi brake-lights. The story is set in 2005, so there’s even an era-specific ‘wheel’ iPod. Its sense of comedy is anchored in moments of social awkwardness; in chatty taxi drivers and fussy bellboys. But contrasting with that realism is the surrealism of its puppet world. All the puppets wear the marks of their construction, lines running along their jaw, faces detachable. And, oh yeah, every other character in Michael’s puppet world —child, wife, ex-girlfriend, hotel staff, the cast of 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey— is voiced by Tom Noonan.

The fact that the hotel the film is set in is named the Fregoli gives a nod to the Frégoli delusion, a syndrome in which a sufferer believes that the people around them are a single person in disguise. Kaufman is less interested in this as medical phenomenon, more as symbolic storytelling device. Imagining the world as filled with people of the one dry voice is a way of depicting the dissociation of depression, but also a satirical picture of modern life. It’s no coincidence that the film is filled with the rubric of customer service. Being a human is, these days, being a consumer: sales turning your individualism into a formula, creating a de-individualising effect.

Across his films as both writer —Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind— and director —Synecdoche, New York— Kaufman has never shied away from asking the big questions, from deep-diving into the existential and philosophical. Often, he plays with film grammar to heighten these questions, and creates cinematic worlds that make these themes manifest. On first watch, Anomalisa seems, in contrast, to be a far simpler proposition. Its central character —a mopey middle-aged narcissist— lands in Cincinnati (try the chili!), disastrously meets up with an old girlfriend, and, then, encounters a star-struck, insecure, self-effacing office-worker (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he instantly becomes obsessed with for the simple fact that she, unlike everyone else in the world, doesn’t sound like Tom Noonan.

They eventually spend the night together, which is either a profound instant of human connection or just a moment of mutual projection, depending on how you feel about off-key renditions of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The sex scene in which they come together —which Johnson spent six months working on!— is awkward, aching, and unexpectedly tender; their first-time fumblings made, at first, sweet poetry, and then the hottest puppet-on-puppet bangin’ since Team America: World Police. With wry transgressiveness, there’s puppet cunnilingus, flaccid puppet cocks, puppet pissing, a puppet office-worker in the building opposite jerking off in front of his computer. It’s, essentially, a marionette sex comedy about a man trying to find his way out of unhappiness by having a one-night stand.

But second viewings and deeper ponderings of Anomalisa show that this surface-layer of story is hiding a deeper, darker world; that this latest Kaufman lark is every bit as creative and convoluted as the other. What to make of the detachable faces? The film’s half-committal to portraying its protagonist’s deluded worldview? The extended nightmare sequence that dives deep into Michael’s delusion (and features an office-space every bit as memorable as Being John Malkovich’s 7 ½ Floor)? The presence of a spooky Japanese sex-doll that may linger like a spectre over the whole thing? Is the film a fantasy? A nightmare? A surrealist delusion? An anti-capitalist fugue?

As always, Kaufman leaves his existential questions open-ended, his whole film up for interpretation. And, once again, he fills his work with humour both simple and conceptual, with characters filled with foibles and optimism, with a sense of cinema as a way of tapping into temporality, perception, and the subconscious. It’s another movie that scans as funny, sad, pathetic, and profound all at once, and a welcome return for one of American cinema’s few true renegades.