We’ve seen countless portrayals of journalism in film over the years. Ideally, the profession symbolizes a passion for the truth and, in many ways, defenders of the people. Investigative journalism sometimes is, and should always be, one of the more interesting themes in all of moviedom. Unfortunately, not so great writing often turns the journalist into a plot device to provide a foil for the more important characters. Sure, reporters can be a thorn in one’s side, especially if that person is doing something illegal or unethical. But the lack of depth behind most journalist characters, true stories and fiction alike, more often than not annoys me. Spotlight is what happens when the profession is done justice.
In a year with so much great writing and so many captivating scripts, it looks like the frontrunner for Best Picture is the one with no words in it, as the protagonist moans and groans his way through the movie. But Spotlight leads a pack of screenwriting masterpieces. There’s nothing boring about the story these reporters are chasing down, but a movie about interviews, phone calls and paperwork has the potential to be painfully dull if the script isn’t the main character. Fortunately for audiences, Spotlight drops you right into the news-breaking fray without a moment to worry about whether or not this will be boring. The dialogue feels as real as anything you’ll see in theaters for some time. I believe that this group of actors worked together on stories long before we see them, and that they will long after we’ve seen them.
A common theme between most of what I’ve praised over the past few months is subtlety. My instinct to anticipate something ridiculous like a car crash in every single scene has almost fully recovered from Whiplash, one full year later. When actors resist the urge to overact in powerful scenes, everyone benefits. The rest of the cast doesn’t have to follow them over the top to keep up. Our immersion as an audience is maintained. And obviously, the actor avoids the risk of sounding ridiculous. This year was blessed with subtlety, and it’s been fun to watch. Spotlight introduces us to characters that care very intensely about what they’re doing while staying believable from start to finish.
One surefire way to strike Oscar gold is by creating a de facto suspense movie, one that doesn’t contain gratuitous action or violence. I still panic watching the Argo finale more than I would during any murder mystery or horror film. Spotlight creates that real life suspense, as the characters find out just how deep one of the darker pits of humanity turns out to be. I’m familiar with the Catholic priest stigma, but a large majority of the facts heading into this movie were a complete mystery to me. As a result, my reactions to each bit of information mirrored that of the characters. The buildup from one terrifying number to the next as the list of suspected offenders grew left me with several somber or disturbing “Wow” moments.
Without getting into the actual events of the story, I’ll go no further than saying that the parallel interviews scene with two of the victims hits every gut punch that the movie as a whole is trying to accomplish. Five-minute roles are made memorable through their unsettling stories. The main characters respond to them with the sensitivity of human beings. But they do so with the composure of professionals, burdened by the need to be fact-oriented and unable to express their own emotions until more private moments. Mark Ruffalo was the standout for me, if I’m forced to choose one. He delivered the right sense of urgency, a passion for their work, and showcased the damage that this situation could even cause towards the people writing about it. But each actor was excellent, and each was affected by this story in very different ways. One was filled with regret, another with frustration towards the helplessness of it all, one faced a more personal touch concerning a family member, and one entered the story as the otherwise neutral third party that turned a fresh set of eyes towards a hidden problem in the Boston area. This variety enhanced the film’s overall personality.
Spotlight tells a fascinating story that addresses our society’s relationship with our faith, our church, and how the two aren’t necessarily one in the same. It’s a project that forces many of us to look back at childhood traditions, see them in a different light, and decide for ourselves what it all meant. On top of all that, they temporarily shook the annoying journalist trope, giving us more complicated people. Great writers can create arguments where both sides are correct, and this one had about three of those conversations. I was pretty anchored in with my make-believe Oscar vote going to The Martian for best picture. That’s for my personal vote, not what I’ll guess in an Oscar pool. We all know the one with the bear and my favorite actor is sitting pretty right now. But Spotlight is the only one of this year’s nominees that made me rethink my imaginary vote. For the first time since last summer, I’m not sure what I’ll vote for. Spotlight is as entertaining as it is important. And I’d be very happy to see this cast and crew win big on Oscar Sunday.