The molestation and abuse of children within the Catholic Church has been turned into a joke as of late. It’s just a punchline, this idea that we’ve all sort of known to be true, yet our views and ideas regarding it are still kept at a distance. It’s out of our heads, and it pops up in our jokes, maybe just in passing, or a TV episode or movie. And then a film like Spotlight comes along, and we come to realize how incredibly real and true this all is. It sort of opens our eyes to a world we’ve all sort of known existed yet never thought about it long enough to actually come to that realization. Like I said, it’s just a punchline now. But this film works not only because of the subject matter it tackles, but because of the execution by the all-star cast and director Tom McCarthy’s vision.
Spotlight tells the true story of the investigative journalism team (known as Spotlight) of the Boston Globe in the early 2000’s as they uncover and piece together this story revolving around the molestation of children by priests and the cover up by the Church, and that is really where this film shines. It is not a character driven story and it’s not this melodrama about a tragedy, but rather it is a real story that puts the investigation at the forefront of the film and lets us learn about these characters through their investigation. The focus is never taken off of the investigation, which kept the film tight and allowed it to progress and unfold at a natural pace, while also subtly ramping up tension throughout as the investigation and story builds. This film displayed how you could keep the focus and attention on a central idea and action, yet you surround that with well-crafted and interesting characters to create a full movie.
It was like Thanksgiving dinner, where the turkey is the main course, but you surround that with some mashed potatoes, and yams and corn and all of this other food that is by itself baked and cooked to perfection, yet as a whole it compliments and accentuates the central focus of the dinner. With this movie, the investigation is like the turkey, and all of the characters is like the side dishes, fully fleshed out and developed, but also just there to help compliment the center piece.
Liev Schreiber is introduced early on as the new editor at the globe, and he is the one who assigns the Spotlight team to dig deeper into this case, and this is an understated and simpler character for Schrieber than say his role on Ray Donovan. Here, Schrieber is just the new guy in town and trying to fit in but also make a difference with the stories he wants to run, and his relationship with Michael Keaton, who leads the Spotlight team, is one of respect and understanding, when usually in movies like this it Schreiber would have been met with opposition instead of respect, and the film could have fell into this trap, but it never did. Relationships such as this helped keep the story grounded and real, which it was because it actually happened. There weren’t those clichés that movies like this usually have. No one from the team was being followed or threatened. It was just a drama about the investigation grounded in a reality that actually seems like reality and not like this world that only exists in the movies.
Mark Ruffalo was fantastic as a member of the Spotlight crew. He was like a chameleon, unrecognizable without needing a mask or deformity. The way he spoke to the way he walked and carried himself was subtle yet noticeable, and it was a transformative performance that deserves Oscar consideration. Rachel McAdams also had a prominent role as another member of the Spotlight crew, and it’s nice to see her break out of the romantic comedy and drama realm to give us performances like this. She is a really talented actress who, when she picks the right material, gives great and naturalistic performances.
This film was also littered with secondary characters who help flesh out this world, and it’s as if the Spotlight team is operating in this seedy underworld, right beneath the surface of what they know to uncover what they never knew they had to. A theme that plays throughout the film is the idea that, when a person is seeped into the culture of a specific place and ideas and norms that that place presents, then sometimes it takes an outsider to shine a light and uncover what you simply cannot see. This Spotlight team is seeped in this culture of Boston, and it takes an outsider like Live Schreiber, who arrives from Miami, to shine a light into a different world, and once he shines that light, they dig to uncover one of the shocking truths of not only their community, but also of this system as a whole, where the Catholic Church covers up the molestation of children by its priests. The movie never gets too lost in itself and this world, and it stays focused on the story and goal at hand.
This film also paints Boston like a character of the movie, like this sympathetic figure. A tight-knit community which also works to possibly be a detriment, where people might look the other way because of how influential the Church is, and the movie also did a good job at discussing who these priests went after and how they chose their victims. All of this was revealed through the investigation, and through the investigation we also got a clear cut picture of the city as well, the good along with the bad.
Moments in this film will bring a tear to your eye because of the sheer power of the passion in the characters, specifically certain moments with Mark Ruffalo, who lets his anger bubble over in this one scene, ad his frustration about everything really explodes into a memorable and heart breaking deliverance of powerful dialogue. The emotion and pure acting spilling from his character was so pure and raw, and attached a sense of connectivity and relatability to this story. To go along with that, their interviews with some survivors were handled in a very real and grounded way, as these characters are asked to relive the most traumatic moment of their life. It’s heartbreaking to see, and the emotion spills from the screen.
This felt like a journalism movie without an agenda, simply telling a story of this Spotlight team getting caught up in this investigation. Emotions were high as they uncovered these awful crimes, and it never felt like a movie that was trying to hit us over the head with a central message. It let the investigation unroll itself and let us in on this massive discovery, bit by bit, person by person. The film never got too big for the story it was telling, and it never outgrew its investigation, which is a testament to the directing by Tom McCarthy and this experienced cast of great actors. Simply put, one of the best films of the year.