Spotlight is the second of the two Oscar-bait docudramas I’ve watched so far this awards season, after The Big Short.
The two could not be more different.Where The Big Short is rambunctious, crudely funny, bombastic, polemical and angry, Spotlight is understated, earnest, naturalistic, even-handed and quietly but firmly compassionate. And it works its charms to communicate its message as effectively and with as much aplomb as The Big Short did.
Spotlight is a filmic account of how the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe worked to uncover the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child-abuse cases committed by their priests, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. Their investigation revealed that the extent of the cover-up was far greater than anyone had suspected, and was bigger than just Boston – it was a national, if not global, pattern of behavior by the Church.
In that sense, it’s a film about fundamentally good people doing things that they think are right. A film about people motivated by a sense of compassion and justice, and also by their professional duty to uncover and report news that the public needs to hear.
Those kinds of performances are hard because they require a lot of nuance to keep things interesting. These are not grandstanding superheroes – they are normal people, people like you and me. And it is to their credit that the cast pulls it off so beautifully and with such nuance. You can see the fire in Michael Rezendes’ (Mark Ruffalo’s) eyes as he stands at the back of a Catholic church watching the children’s choir sing a Christmas hymn, as the priests look on. You can sense Sacha Pfeiffer’s (Rachel McAdam’s) struggle to maintain a professional demeanor as she interviews a former Catholic priest who glibly admits to his history of child abuse. The whole cast shows a remarkable degree of sensitivity of portrayal. No one cast member stands out. This even-handedness of direction provides the film with a kind of graceful sincerity that shows that it really means what it wants to tell us.
The phenomena of child abuse – and the narratives of the victims – are also presented with sensitivity and respect. The victims – survivors – are often treated like nameless ciphers by the media. This film gives them presence and gives them a voice to contribute their own discourses into the film’s own constructed narrative.
If anyone’s given short shrift, it might be the Church, whose members and advocates are portrayed as moral cowards, by and large, unwilling to rock the boat even if it means silencing those who have suffered abuse at the hands of some of their members. There is a clear antagonist in this film and it is the Church. But the film is effective as showing them up as the other side of humanity – frail, fallible, far from the mouthpieces of God that they purport to be. It is an important lesson to not put your faith too much in the fallible and human institutions of organised religion.
Spotlight is a tightly written film with a defined message that eschews bombast to deliver incisive commentary on its topics: the power of journalism, the juxtaposition between courageous action and cowardly inaction, and giving the voiceless victims of child abuse a voice. The film isn’t interested in the indictment of the Church or of revelling in its own sense of justice, and it is telling that it ends right when the story breaks and the team has no time to celebrate in their scoop, but instead – their real work – gathering the stories of victims empowered by their expose to come forward – begins.
I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 notepads