Spotlight, film review: ‘Subtle and very cunning’

09:24 29 January 2016

Rachel McAdams in Spotlight. Picture: Seacia Pavao

Rachel McAdams in Spotlight. Picture: Seacia Pavao


The best performances are the subtlest in this true newspaper story about exposing Catholic Church corruption, says Michael Joyce.

Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci
Film Length: 128 mins

Hollywood movies are all about the bright side, so although this is about how the Roman Catholic Church systematically covered up paedophile priests, the main thrust of the film is to celebrate the spirit of investigative journalism that exposed it. Spotlight is a newspaper movie, which is one of the rarest genres there is; these days the idea of investigative journalists with unimpeachable integrity hunting down stories and being encouraged to expose the corrupt and the powerful seems too much of a fantasy even for Hollywood.

The film feels as though it has been made to rigorous journalistic standards. Unlike most Based on a True Story films, most of this does seem believable. McCarthy keeps everything low key; there’s an almost hushed air to it. The script rattles off names and legalese, trying to do the minimum of spoon feeding and trusting you to keep up. It also slips in a very subtle, and very cunning, bit of misdirection with the plot.

This is quite a comeback for McCarthy, an actor whose directorial career got off to a flying start with The Station Agent and The Visitor but had lost its way: his last film was an Adam Sandler comedy that didn’t even get into cinemas. He is known as an actors’ directors, drawing out career-defining performances from Richard Jenkins and Peter Dinklage.

Here he has the best cast he’s ever had, one of the best casts of any film this year. But journalist roles can be tough on actors. All they get to do is answer phones/ take notes/ read/ file/ walk down corridors or across news rooms/ drink coffee. The best performances are the ones that accept the limitations. Liev Schreiber, as the new editor who encourages the team to pursue the story, is largely inert but he is probably the best thing in the film. As the most passionate of the Spotlight team Ruffalo seems to spend the whole film with his head cocked to one side and his face mushed up in a Popeye grimace. He wants to give us his performance but it isn’t needed. Just stick to the facts.

Rating: 4/5 stars

For longer reviews and a look at Michael Bay’s 13 Hours and Robert De Niro in Dirty Grandpa, visit

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