Last week, in my review of Going My Way, I wrote about Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character and how much great work he does in his New York City parish. O’Malley uses the church, and his position within it, for so much good in his community. His actions and the larger picture of the actual potential for good from the Catholic Church is certainly just as true today as it was then.
However, there’s also the dark side, the hard duality that comes with the church: child sex abuse by some of its priests. The abuse and subsequent church cover-ups have unfortunately been going on for decades or longer. Yet this is an issue that the church has had to grapple with for years, sometimes poorly.
Tom McCarthy‘s Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture winner, helps to bring this issue to the forefront. Spotlight, though, is not a story about the church, but rather five intrepid journalists from The Boston Globe as they worked to uncover the widespread and systematic abuse and cover-ups within the Boston community. Featuring an unbelievable ensemble cast of Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is an intense look at scandal, power, teamwork, fearlessness, rape, and journalism at large. It’s also fantastic in nearly every aspect of filmmaking.
Now, for the rest of the movie.
Spotlight itself is the oldest investigative journalism wing in the United States in 2001 when The Boston Globe’s new editor Marty Baron, Schreiber, shows up. Baron is immediately interested in a series of columns by the Globe alluding to sex abuse within the church. Baron gives the job of bringing down the system to Spotlight, just a small group of journalists headed by Walter “Robby” Robinson. This is not a pack of journalists, though. Spotlight features hard-nosed, gritty, and immensely talented writers like Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (McAdams) and Matt Carroll (James). The team’s first, and biggest lead is an enterprising and socially awkward lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) who is working on behalf of more than 80 clients to seek damages from the church.
What follows after Rezendes cracks Garabedian is a detailed look at each team member’s struggle with the story, their coming to grips with it (Boston has a large Catholic population) and reconciling themselves to bringing down the system of abuse and then cover-ups.
The team’s collective struggles from the stonewalling by judges, lawyers, government and church officials detail most of the first half of the movie. Slowly, but surely, though, the dominoes begin to fall and team’s sources come out of the woodwork as the story consumes more and more of their attention.
The best part about this story from a storytelling perspective is Spotlight‘s unbelievable pacing. There’s no action in this movie, not in the way that we think of action, but rather the tension relies solely on person-to-person drama and intrigue. The movie’s dramatic ingredients come to us in very carefully measured doses until you’re given the whole cake, frosting and all. Tension builds, and builds, and builds from the opening frame until the movie ends, 126 minutes later. By the time it was done, I was gasping for air. 1.
The script for Spotlight was written in 2013 by McCarthy and Joseph Singer. The pair won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars in 2016.
First of all, the script itself reflects the city where the story takes place: Boston. One of America’s great working-class cities, Boston is known for it’s gruff and brutally honest people. The script is nearly identical to this image. There are no apologies for how these people treat each other, the characters are who they are.
Second, and probably most important, is the idea from the last section. The plot is driven by the spoken word more than anything else in the film. Many films do this, but only some do it very well. Each scene is like a miniature three-act story in themselves, each one with a beginning, middle, and an end. Every single exchange, whether between allies or enemies, dripped with conflict, giving me the feeling that I was on the precipice of a cliff every time someone opened their mouths. 1.
In direct contrast to Going My Way‘s near lack of music, Spotlight is filled with sounds of all kinds, particularly in terms of the score composed by Howard Shore. The last time I wrote about Shore was for my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
This score is not as grandiose as his work on The Lord of the Rings films, but the score is great nonetheless. Shore shies away from the sonic spectacle in favor of a score with drones, some electric synthesizers, and a piano to help create the mood of a good journalism drama. 1.
One of the more interesting parts of Spotlight concerns setting. Most of this movie takes place in newsrooms and lawyers offices. All of these are uninteresting places. But, just as a house is not a home until it has people in it, offices are only as good as the characters within its confines. That doesn’t mean that the physical space surrounding the characters has to be dull either.
Much like my review of Kramer vs. Kramer, the set in this film has crap everywhere. Filing cabinets, paper stacks, coffee cups, clunky old computers, and bank boxes tie up so much of the space on the screen that we can’t see the warm beige tones of the faded paint behind the people. Each of these desks looks like a filing cabinet was blown to kingdom come, yet nobody cared to pick the mess. 1.
Masanobu Takayanagi was the director of photography for Spotlight. His work did not garner any award nominations. I think is primarily due to the fact that the movie takes place within a series of offices and newsrooms.
To his credit, however, Takayanagi, still made Spotlight interesting. Using a series of slow pushes and pulls, Takayanagi keeps us interested in each scene because what we see slowly changes all the time. This is particularly true when the team is on the brink of a big break or a bombshell is about to be dropped. Spotlight isn’t a film that needs epic cinematography, not in the slightest. However, the little things done throughout it send it over the top. 1.
Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams both received an acting nomination for Spotlight, although neither of them won.
Ruffalo plays Mike Rezendes, the lead writer for the elite Spotlight investigative team at The Boston Globe. Rezendes at first glance is quiet and shuffles through life in an awkward manner. Rezendes is the lungs that keep Spotlight going, enthusiastically jumping headfirst into the project before the team.
For all his awkwardness, we soon realize that Rezendes is a damned fine journalist, pursuing every lead, pushing them until he gets what he needs. He’s not afraid of the truth, but he also doesn’t know what the truth is until he sees it while writing a story. He’s the Steinbeck, using his figures to create art on newsprint. But Rezendes is more than that. He’s a passionate Bostonian who wears his heart on his sleeve at all times. He’s unquestionably loyal to his crew, his sources, and to his paper. He sees first-hand how the horrible actions of a few sick priests affect so many different people decades after their encounters. His anger at the systematic abuses by the church keeps him going, even when some upper levels of the church and even The Boston Globe start to turn against him. In the end, Rezendes writes the piece for the paper and its because of his hard work and fervent dedication that the repugnant stories of abuse are read by the world.
Rachel McAdams plays opposite of Ruffalo as Sacha Pfeiffer. She’s a young investigative journalist with Spotlight. In fact, she’s the only woman on the team. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s soft. Far from it. If Rezendes is lungs of the operation, then Pfeiffer is the stomach and liver. The body doesn’t work without her.
Pfeiffer, like Rezendes, is a great journalist interested in the truth, as well. She’s also like Rezendes in that she’s a pusher, squeezing each source until all the juice comes out. She then applies a brain full of genius to help solve the equation of the story. From a Catholic household and still attending Mass, Pfeiffer ‘s journey to acceptance is a slow one. She must contend with her pious family, even though she knows she working on a story to undermine everything they believe.
But perhaps her greatest skill is her empathy. She squeezes the sources, sure, but she’s not aggressive about it. She’s more likely to hug someone while conducting an interview than the rest of the bunch, but again, she’s not soft. She’s the perfect person to speak to the victims themselves; she makes them feel comfortable with her even when her interviews are recalling all the horrible nightmares of their encounters.
Playing the part of Robby Robinson is Michael Keaton. Robby is the heart and soul of the body. Warmth and energy come from him and he glues the whole unit together. He’s the boss of Spotlight and a fine one at that. Robby is brilliant at picking out his reporters’ strengths and weaknesses and applying them both to get the most out of his investigators and writers.
Robby has an instinctual nose for stories and is one of those old reporters that can follow his hunch more than his own brain tells him not to. Keaton is brilliant for this role, taking no prisoners on his way to bring down the Church. 1.
Tom McCarthy took the director’s chair for Spotlight. He was nominated for Best Director but did not win that award.
For McCarthy, Spotlight is a masterpiece. Whereas Going My Way was a film that didn’t necessarily send a message, but was rather a beacon of hope in a time of horrific war, Spotlight is just the opposite. First and foremost, at the heart of the movie stands the idea that those who have the power to take action and raise awareness also have the responsibility to do so. Sure, the Globe with 53% of its readers being Catholic could have just moved on, not thrown the church under the bus. They could have done that, but it certainly would not have been right. Not only does the paper have the responsibility to its readership, but also society at large. These are the two pillars of journalism that, even after drastic newspaper cuts in the digital age (I still get one each day) still stand and support the rest of the industry. It is also from these two pillars grow the rest of this movie too.
Throughout the movie, the team takes up this mantle by simply being brutally honest with each other. At one point, the phrase, “language is important” comes out. This is true in everyday life for a journalist, sure, but especially when it comes to a story like this. Spotlight is grotesque in many aspects but that’s because it has to be. It doesn’t hide behind anything while telling its story. McCarthy delivers to us a fast-paced and deeply troubling work of abuse by those in power against those who are the most innocent. Centuries of influence and dogma and at least several decades of abuse and cover-ups confront us at every single turn during Spotlight. At times, it feels like tunneling out of Shawshank with a rock hammer while Shawshank blasts you in the face with napalm. Yet, through perseverance and sheer grit, these sick human beings are exposed. I can’t say that justice has been done, but it’s a conversation that we’re having, and that’s a start. 1.
I’m giving a bonus point to the writing, acting, and directing.
Final Score: 10/10
Spotlight won the 88th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Room for Best Picture. The award was presented by Morgan Freeman and accepted by producers Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, and Blye Pagon Faust. In total, Spotlight was nominated six times and won just twice. It became the first movie since The Greatest Show on Earth to win Best Picture and only one other award.
Other winners that night include Alejandro G. Iñarritu winning Best Director, Leonardo DiCaprio winning Best Actor, Brie Larson winning Best Actress, Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor, and Alicia Vikander winning Best Supporting Actress. The ceremony was hosted by Chris Rock.
After taking a break for Memorial Day, I’ll pick things up again with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. After that, it’s American Beauty, All Quiet on the Western Front, The English Patient, An American in Paris, Gigi, Hamlet, and Out of Africa.