I had relatively high expectations going into Spotlight, the film that appears headed straight for this year’s Best Picture Oscar if critics are to be believed. For the most part, the hype is justified.
Most people know about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, but not nearly as many people know about the journalists who uncovered the story. Spotlight is the fascinating true story about the eponymous team from the Boston Globe that worked tirelessly to expose the systemic child abuse being swept under the rug by the Catholic Church for decades.
Like all good true stories, this one feels meticulously researched and respectful to the subject. From the very start, you get a great sense of something remarkable brewing, and director and co-writer Tom McCarthy does a commendably patient job in allowing the characters and story to develop, much like how a real journalistic investigation peels back the layers bit by bit, with the occasional exciting breakthrough. The way McCarthy depicts the subtle push-back from the predominantly Catholic community in Boston helps explain why this dirty secret stayed a secret for so long. The pacing is so important to a film like this, and McCarthy manages to get it perfect.
The film also features without a doubt the best ensemble cast of the year, led by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. The great thing about the cast is that they’re not just there to create an impressive list of names — each of them has a key role to play and they all deliver memorable performances. It’s hard to think of another instance in recent years where so many big names are so balanced that each can have such meaty roles in the same movie.
The thing that impressed me the most about the Spotlight is the way it portrays the church and the Boston Globe journalists. As disappointing and infuriating it is to learn about the extent of the cover-up, I never got the feeling that the Catholic Church was being vilified beyond what the facts implied. The same goes for the portrayals of the Spotlight Team — they’re neither saints nor heroes, just a bunch of journalists who are extremely dedicated to their jobs (and who make me ashamed to think I once considered myself a semi-journalist). This even-handed approach makes cannot be understated — it makes all the difference in a movie like this.
While Spotlight is an exceptionally well-made film that ticks all the boxes, it’s not the kind of jaw-dropping experience that will have most casual viewers running out of the cinema declaring that it’s the best thing they’ve seen this year. Personally, I appreciated the film more than I was entertained, excited or thrilled by it.
That said, it’s not that kind of film. In some ways, Spotlight reminds me a little of last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, in that the film has it all on paper — intriguing premise, masterful direction, great script and terrific performances — but doesn’t quite hit it out of the park in terms of building an emotional connection . The difference, however, is that I found Spotlight to be the much more involving and compelling film because it at least made me care for the characters and what they were fighting to unveil, as gut-wrenching (especially as a parent) as it was to watch at times.
In all, Spotlight is a fantastic film with an important story to tell, and it’s told brilliantly with a superb cast and outstanding performances. While I consider it a riveting drama that’s perhaps easier to admire than enjoy, that should not stop it from being regarded as one of the best films of the year.
4.5 stars out of 5
PS: Shockingly, the last film Tom McCarthy wrote and directed was the Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler.