Spotlight – A Movie Review
I have mixed emotions this year when it comes to viewing the Oscar nominations for best picture. Last year I watched almost all of them…and it ended up being quite a slog. I ended up only enjoying two of them, and even then I can’t say any of them blew me away. The field in 2014 was much better (not to mention more diverse!) So when this year’s announcements were made, I had a creeping dread: this year seems like a carbon copy of last year’s picks. Same actors. Same directors. Same genres. Same troubling lack of any diversity. It looked like this year was going to be the same grueling task of watching films not designed to entertain, simply to garner nominations.
Well stop the presses, because if any of the remaining films on the best picture list is even half of the movie that Spotlight is, I could be singing a very different tune come February 28th.
This film is based on actual events. In 2001, The Boston Globe got a new editor, an outsider to the city in every way imaginable. His first act is to follow up on the drips and drabs reporting that the paper had done on a pedophile priest. He hands investigation of the case to Spotlight, a division within the paper that secretively and meticulously investigates scandals and city-wide issues. What they uncover is a ring of corruption and deceit that reaches not only to the highest orders of the Catholic Church, but has its tentacles firmly gripped upon many of the city’s institutions: the police, the courts, the colleges, and even The Boston Globe itself. All have either abetted or turned a blind eye to the scandal. As the case mounts, the four-person squad at Spotlight is constantly uncovering new evidence that will ultimately win them a Pulitzer, while shaking the foundations of the entire city.
The strength of this film is its amazing cast. Michael Keaton is good as the departmental editor of Spotlight. Rachel McAdams is very good as Keaton’s right hand reporter. Mark Ruffalo is amazing as the dogged investigative journalist who tracks down many of the biggest clues. Liev Schreiber (you know, Sabertooth from that awful Wolverine Origins movie?) is a revelation as the new editor in chief. The entire cast is rock solid, from top to bottom…but Stanley Tucci almost steals the whole film. I completely agree that Mark Ruffalo’s intensely personal character and his portrayal are worthy of an Oscar nomination…but I think it should have been for Best Actor, not Best Supporting, and that Tucci should have been given the Best Supporting nod. Ruffalo is the beating heart of the story, and Tucci makes the whole plot work with his brilliant and bristly lawyer who’s tireless efforts get the whole investigation started. Every character in this film is alive and vivid, full of real human depth and insight, without any grandstanding or lionizing.
The Plot Thickens
While most are well aware of how the ultimate story fell out, Spotlight does a fantastic job of running down the case and giving you well timed information, and at obscuring certain elements to keep the tension high and tight. This film keeps you glued to every twist and turn like a thriller. Even knowing where it all leads, the journey through the investigation and the many players involved is fascinating. There is only one misstep that I fault the plot with, and it is a red-herring about who botched (perhaps intentionally) the original investigation into the case twenty years prior. They really really wave that herring under your nose…and suddenly the truth comes out and it doesn’t really add anything to the plot. It was probably in there because it was factual, but the run-around was frustrating when it all came to nothing.
Red-herring aside, I do have one gripe with Spotlight: it quite often stumbles visually. There are many shots where objects are distracting and in the way: blurry glass obscures a meeting room, poorly positioned blinds cause the character in front of them to look like they are moving in a strobe light, garish architecture (much of it shot on location, so understandable to a degree) causes perspective issues and once again necessitates odd angles and unnatural blocking. In one scene, three actors are reading books and standing facing the audience, which feels like stage direction from a play instead of how anyone would stand in real life. Minor issues, but pervasive, and early on it pulled me out of the story by focusing my attention on technical issues.
Go to Press
In the final accounting, I found Spotlight to be an extremely engaging and brilliantly acted drama. Many scenes had me leaning in to catch every word and gesture. The story is explosive, and handled deftly, No matter what your relation to the church, this film is (a word I hate to use) important. It says something about issues in a specific city regarding a specific scandal…but it also speaks volumes about how we live, and how we interface with media. With much speculation about the death of print media, Spotlight reminds us of why at one point that media was omnipresent: at its best, it spoke truth to power and ennobled those whose voice was often drowned out by the edifices of that power structure. We could stand to have more of that type of journalism in our lives.