Spotlight: Why are we so fascinated with real-life stories

03 Feb 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

8 mins
Spotlight still
Spotlight still

Spotlight tells the story of a team of investigative journalists for The Boston Globe who in 2002 exposed a large-scale series of abuses made by the clergy in their town. Once the news broke, a wave of similar scandals were exposed across the world, and the Spotlight team ended up writing more than 600 articles relating to the case.

Dedicating huge amounts of time and resources into uncovering the story while taking steps to ensure that it being made public would have the best possible impact for the victims of the abuse, the journalists came up against massive resistance from Boston's major institutions - and risked alienating their own majority-Catholic readership.

What they revealed was that the wider community had worked together not to protect the victims, but instead the reputation of the Catholic Church, an institution entrenched in the identity of Boston. Spotlight not only tells a difficult story well, but asks the audience to consider the purpose of journalism and its changing nature in an increasingly digital age, and how such abuses can be covered up and kept quiet. At the heart of the film is the question about how a state of mind that prioritised maintaining the status quo over protecting the innocent could have come to be, and that even those tasked with speaking out can find themselves complicit. A film that similarly explores the simmering tensions beneath the surface in Boston while trying to solve a mystery is Gone Baby Gone (2007, 15), which follows two young private investigators trying to find a missing child.

Newsrooms have long been attractive to filmmakers as a source for a good story. From the major feat of investigative journalism uncovered in the classic  All The President's Men (1976, 15), when reporters were forced to challenge the highest authority, to  His Girl Friday (1940, U), a screwball classic that captures the rivalries involved in the fast-paced business of making the news, through to The Paper (1994, 15), which also features Michael Keaton as a reporter working around the clock to make sure he prints the truth about a breaking story.

Treatment of true events on the big screen is a tough balancing act for a director to take on (perhaps more so for events in living memory). Not only does an expanse of lived experience need to be distilled into a couple of hours in a way that makes sense to an audience, but filmmakers also need to make sure that they will be captivated by the story without misrepresenting or compromising the people whose story they're trying to tell.

In the case of Spotlight the subject matter is harrowing, but the scale is vast, meaning that instead of building sympathy by following individual victims we are guided through the filter of the journalists to the heart of the matter.

Spotlight still

Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy employs a pacy, linear plotting that allows the extent of the scandal to reveal itself in the manner that the original Spotlight team uncovered it. Even when there are poignant references to frustrated victims past disclosures to the paper, the mood is very much on the time at hand the journalists are forced to assess and reflect on why nothing was done at the time, and consider the consequences for the victims they are currently dealing with. This focus on timeliness also adds to the urgency of the film- after such a long period of this having gone beneath the radar, when is the right time to reveal the truth? This concern is balanced against the need to mount an indestructible body of evidence that will ensure that the full extent of what has occurred will be made public and prevent any possible cover-ups.

Revealing the story by working through the process of discovery, and the importance of backing up all claims of this nature with solid evidence is something that the writers and actors also made sure to do. Having previously worked on the script for The Fifth Estate (2013, 15), the drama based on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, writer Josh Singer researched extensively and interviewed everybody associated with the story and the buried reports that triggered it in an attempt to build up a complete and multifaceted picture. Despite the fact that the reporters central to the film are known more through their words rather than as recognisable public figures, the actors spent a lot of time with their real-life counterparts, learning the intimate details of their lives.

The cinematography, from filmmaker Masanobu Takayanagi (who also shot  Silver Linings Playbook The Grey, and The Warrior) is steady and unfussy, and employs a muted palette that contributes to the carefully crafted realism while also removing distractions. Marty Baron, The Boston Globe's editor in the film, remarked that the set for his office was recreated down to the last detail- including a pink flamingo that he received as a leaving gift from his previous paper. Unfortunately the flamingo didn't make the final cut- the flash of colour deemed too distracting, and it was hidden away behind a bookcase as they couldn't bear to remove it entirely. In keeping with the set the colours are mainly neutral, keeping the physical presence of the actors in the background to allow for the weight of the script to hit.

The approach to filmmaking displayed in Spotlight challenges the audience to purely focus on the subject matter at hand, being sure to keep substance over style by stepping back from colouring the narrative with implied judgements. It is also an homage to the hard won process of getting to the truth without giving in to hastily drawn conclusions or sensationalism.

Related Films:

The Insider (1999, 15)

Bad Education (2004, 15)

Shattered Glass (2003, 12)

Zodiac (2007, 15)

Philomena (2013, 12)

Doubt (2009, 15)

State of Play (2009, 12)

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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