There's been much discussion in recent times over whether American cinema has been overtaken by television. Tom McCarthy's new film Spotlight, which almost by default has become the frontrunner in the 2015-16 awards race, suggests what the movies may have learnt in turn from their smaller-screen cousin. Much of it is indistinguishable from a high-end HBO miniseries, and major visual and thematic cues are ported over from season five of that network's landmark series The Wire, in which McCarthy had a prominent role as a rogue journalist on the payroll of the Baltimore Sun. It's clear McCarthy shares David Simon's commitment to street-smart, socially conscious storytelling: here's a film that fair oozes due diligence.
A true story has here been reshaped into a procedural - that most televisual of templates - although the focus falls not on the usual cops or lawyers, rather a crack team of journalists gradually pulling a story together. These are the investigative staff of the Boston Globe, who - in a series of landmark 2002 reports - exposed how the Catholic Church had come to cover up abuses carried out by a staggering number of priests throughout the 1970s and 80s. (The Globe's team - known as Spotlight - thus preempted the money-following of Alex Gibney's recent documentary expose Mea Maxima Culpa, though the presence among their ranks of Ben Bradlee Jr. - son of the Washington Post legend immortalised by Jason Robards in All the President's Men - also places their endeavours in a wider journalistic and cinematic lineage.)
The story's one hook, but what really interests McCarthy here is the infrastructure that allows journalists to do their job - that same infrastructure that, since 2002, has been severely compromised, either by the kinds of money men who might well have secrets they don't want investigated, or by internal mismanagement. Spotlight reconstructs one such framework, using character actors we trust implicitly: working under the paper's careful new chief Liev Schreiber, senior editors Michael Keaton and John Slattery oversee the efforts of star reporters Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo to bring the Church to book. The casting of the latter - credibility eroded not a jot by several outings as the Incredible Hulk - is key to what McCarthy is getting at: here are a team of real-world superheroes to rival the Avengers, pitted against the almighty might and reach of one religious institution, with no more than a pen and notepad to serve as their sword and shield.
Given the film's glowing reception thus far - movie that paints journalists in heroic light elicits great reviews: no surprise there - some recalibration of viewer expectation may be in order. As so often in his best work - by which I mean 2004's The Station Agent, not last year's Adam Sandler curio The Cobbler - McCarthy proves (much like his characters here) a quiet grafter, doing his most energetic work at the word processor. There's something a little dogged and ploddy about his intercutting as the journos gather their leads, and while he makes more of his Boston locations than the recent Black Mass, framing vulnerable clapboard houses beneath the church's looming arches, much of Spotlight is visually unremarkable. McCarthy makes a point of dressing his principals in profession-appropriate cargo pants and putting them in cramped, unflashy apartments; every now and again, the camera will accompany them on a shrugging walk-and-talk through the newspaper's print rooms and archives.
Mostly, though, he's content to hand over the screen to actors who prove a genuine pleasure to watch as they shape and redirect the material, moulding it into something like life: Ruffalo, who does more running around in pursuit of this story than anyone, stops from time to time to perform a wary, circling duet with Stanley Tucci as the lawyer representing the priests, while Keaton and McAdams work on Billy Crudup as the slick DA who assisted in the first wave of dealmaking.
At every stage, Spotlight remains utterly undemonstrative - its big setpiece sends one reporter to the library with another attacks data in a yearbook with a sliderule - yet it gathers its own momentum, and allows viewer outrage at the abuses of power uncovered by the Spotlight team to grow as organically as it would upon reading an expert expose. The lack of onscreen hype may, in fact, be Spotlight's secret weapon, allowing us to better hear out the arguments it makes in favour of institutions (the media and the Church) we might still want to have around and even be a part of if they weren't so corruptible, and - more specifically - in favour of the type of rigorous, conscientious research and writing that would appear to be on life support in this age of clickbait, hot takes and search engine optimisation.
I'm not so sure such arguments demand or need recognition with an Oscar - a Pulitzer or Emmy might be more in Spotlight's line - but it's just possible McCarthy's film might have the wider impact of encouraging a new generation of writers to pick up a Biro and start asking questions of their leaders, rather than sheepishly accepting the answers. God knows there are stories enough to look into.
(MovieMail, January 2016)
Spotlight screens on BBC2 tonight at 10.45pm.