Oscars 2016: Spotlight

The Film: Spotlight

The Pitch: All the Cardinal’s Men

Number of Nominations: Six

Which Categories? Best Picture. Best Director. Best Original Screenplay. Best Supporting Actor. Best Supporting Actress. Best Editing.

Will it Win? Tom McCarthy’s film has been a frontrunner for Best Picture since it was released in November, and while it is a well-made, well-acted film, there’s something curiously lacking about it. It’s a good movie on an important subject, and it has an earnest sense of righteous anger, and you should watch it if only for the information printed on the screen at the film’s end, which should make you furious, if the film hasn’t already broken you.

But it feels – I don’t know how else to put this – non-cinematic.


I suspect a large part of the reason why it has gained so much awards buzz is its shocking subject matter, its newspaper setting and its nostalgic feel, with actors playing real-life hero-journalists fighting a David and Goliath battle against the Powers That Be. Print journalism is on its last legs, we are told, and yet here is a film extolling the virtues of good old-fashioned reporting and the roar of printing presses, and lamenting the increasing toehold of the Internet, an attitude no doubt shared by many film critics.

The film stands a decent chance of winning Best Original Screenplay, unless the Academy is reduced to a mass of blubbering tears by Inside Out, or feels intellectually challenged by Ex-Machina, or – and I think this is a definite possibility after what has transpired in the last few days – the voters feel guilty about how pallid the Oscars are this year and decide to give it to Straight Outta Compton.

I can’t see it winning Best Picture; I expect the Academy will follow the money and award it to The Martian, or follow Furiosa on her war rig and give it to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Likewise, McCarthy’s direction is good, and as an actor himself he knows how to direct actors (The Station Agent; Win-Win; The Visitor) and after playing a journalist in The Wire, he’s more than familiar with newsrooms, but there’s nothing particularly visually striking about the film, and Howard Shore’s jazzy piano score doesn’t seem to match the film’s mood. It’s not urgent enough or foreboding enough or have any sense of suspense.

The editing by Tom McArdle (no relation!) is efficient and moves the film along at a decent pace.


Mark Ruffalo stands a decent chance of taking home the prize for Best Supporting Actor. This is his third nomination, and among his peers he is a popular, immensely likeable actor. Plus he’s very good in Spotlight, and gets to have the requisite Oscar-bait moment when he delivers a fiery speech about Justice. He spends much of the film with his hands in his pockets and hunched like a cornered angry dog or a bull preparing to charge. He also gets to do the equivalent of both Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men (listening in awe to a deep source revealing harsh truths, and stubbornly pestering people.)Unless the Academy is feeling sentimental and decides to reward Sylvester Stallone, or Tom Hardy rides a wave of wins for The Revenant, this should be Ruffalo’s year.

Rachel McAdams, though, while doing decent work, didn’t register the same for me at all. There were a lot of great supporting performances by actresses in 2015, and frankly I’m a little mystified as to why she is nominated.


As for the rest of the excellent cast, everyone is on form. Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery all do well (although considering that Slattery is playing Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the infamous Washington Post editor played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, I was waiting in vain for a scene of Slattery with his feet on his desk).


In a year with daring films (Room), dizzying technical work (The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road), solidly entertaining fare (The Big Short and The Martian), and gorgeous-looking period pieces (Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies), Spotlight seems out of place because its approach is workaday, like a well-meaning, decent made-for-cable issue movie that somehow ended up in cinemas.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being workaday, and director McCarthy’s style more than suits the film’s topic, as dogged investigative journalists work sources and chase down leads. This is a film that, much like its heroes, is concerned with getting the job done at the expense of everything else. People come in early and stay late. They eat shitty take-out food or barely eat at all. There’s mention of families but they are seldom seen. Nobody seems to have much of a personal life.


“How do you say ‘no’ to God?”

In 2001, the journalists of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team begin investigating Father John Geoghan, who is accused of molesting more than 80 boys. As they dig deeper and acknowledge their paper’s own failings, the team uncovers a conspiracy of lawyers and government officials who helped the Boston Archdiocese hide the pedophilia of many priests and deny justice to the victims.


Boston is a small town ruled by the Catholic Church and devoted to the Red Sox. And it is not welcoming to outsiders, especially non-Catholics. Those points are made repeatedly in Spotlight. So when the new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), a Jew and a blow-in from out of town who doesn’t even like baseball, decides that the newspaper should investigate accusations of abuse by a priest, the idea is met with much resistance, not just from the Catholic Diocese and associated powerful agents in the city’s elite, but from his own staff, who fear the story will alienate readers and won’t accomplish much.
But they go ahead and investigate anyway, with Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and D’Arcy James doing most of the legwork.
Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for victims of child abuse suing the Church. (He’s also something of an outsider: “I’m Armenian. How many Armenians do you know in Boston?”)
There are shocking revelations about child abuse. Witnesses reluctantly come forward and tell their horrific stories of being groomed by priests, of rape and oral sex. Smooth-talking lawyers stonewall our heroes. There are veiled threats made, hints that the Old Boys Network won’t let the story come out. Much of the script is concerned with characters talking on phones or meeting sources on park benches and bars. It’s not quite All the President’s Men, although it does have a moment equivalent to that film’s scene in the Library of Congress, when the reporters stand in a dark and dank basement filled with old files, and discover a pattern of cover-up by the Church going back decades.
It’s the pattern, of course, that infuriates the journalists the most. The initial charge against one priest abusing several children in the late 1990s balloons into almost ninety priests molesting hundreds of children over many years, with constant reassigning of offenders to other parishes and intimidation of families (all poor, working-class, and devout) to keep quiet. The statistics presented in the film’s final credits should horrify, appall, and enrage you.
And for Walter Robinson (Keaton), there is tremendous guilt as well as anger. He grew up in Boston, went to school with many of the city’s now-elite, loves the city but knows there is something rotten about the place, something that everyone deliberately ignored or pretended wasn’t happening.
There are some  great moments: Baron pays a courtesy visit to Cardinal Law (an unctuous Len Cariou) and receives a gift of a Catholic Catechism as a “guide to Boston.” An outstandingly directed scene shows Matt Carroll (D’Arcy James) discovering that one of the Church’s ‘treatment centres’ for priests who’ve transgressed is only a block away from his house. Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviews an offending priest on his doorstep and he readily admits that he molested children, but qualifies that admission by adding in a matter-of-fact tone that he got no gratification from it. The always great – and usually too charming to be fully trusted – Billy Crudup shows up as a lawyer.
And the Church is omnipresent, with steeples appearing in the background of many shots in the film.
I haven’t visited Boston, so I don’t know how much of an impact the story had on the place (a lot, I imagine) or how the Globe fits into the city’s fabric. As I was watching Spotlight, though, I couldn’t help comparing it to other Boston-set films: The Town; Gone Baby Gone; The Departed; even Good Will Hunting; all of which seemed to capture the place in ways that Spotlight somehow doesn’t. That might be unfair to Spotlight. Those are different stories. But a friend from there assures me the film didn’t do the best job of capturing the full character of the place, which is a shame.
Verdict: Four Deadlines Out Of Five
Postscript: The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins has an uncredited role as the voice of psychotherapist who Ruffalo speaks with on the phone.

3 thoughts on “Oscars 2016: Spotlight

  1. Other reviewers have mentioned the excellent documentary that covers the same subject. I haven’t seen either film, but I wonder if that might be why this one feels less cinematic, and perhaps more like a documentary? A powerful subject, nonetheless.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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