Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s newsroom drama about pedophile priests in Boston, will probably go down as one of the weakest films ever to win Best Picture. It’s not as bad as Crash, or as insipid as The King’s Speech, but it’s not great, or even good film making. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a competently written and directed TV movie of the week that calls attention to a horrible epidemic of child abuse inside the Catholic Church, and the rotten establishment that covered it up. Giving it the Best Picture award, however, was an appalling act of political cowardice designed to draw attention away from the far superior The Big Short. Did some calls go out from the Clinton campaign to the Academy voters to urge them to give the Oscar to Spotlight “for the children?” Probably not, but let’s not kid ourselves. This was about protecting Wall Street.

Calling out pedophile priests was dangerous thing to do in the early 1990s.  Sinead O’Connor’s magnificent act of performance art on Saturday Night Live almost destroyed her career. In 2016, it’s a pretty safe political bet. Nobody in Hollywood, or for that matter Boston — Massachusetts is the least religious state in the country – cares very much about protecting the Catholic Church. The religion of the United States of America is not Roman Catholicism. It’s capitalism. What’s more, there have already been two far superior movies about the evils of Catholic patriarchy and child abuse, 2003’s The Magdalene Sisters and 2013’s Philomena, neither of which won Best Picture. Philomena also featured a great lead performance by the brilliant Judi Dench.

The Oscars are always political. This year, the main debate, at least on social media, focused on the lack of awards for black actors and for other people of color. While it’s a rather strange charge to level at the Academy this year, when a Mexican director won his second straight award for Best Director and Mexican cinematographer got his third straight award for Best Cinematography, the Oscars can always use a more diverse set of nominees. Perhaps Creed should have gotten a nomination for Best Picture instead of Brooklyn. Perhaps Straight Out of Compton or Chi-Raq should have at least gotten some recognition, but let’s call attention to the elephant in the room. Hillary Clinton, a right-wing Wall Street connected Democrat, has weaponized political correctness in general, and the black vote in particular, to attack Bernie Sanders, a solidly liberal Democrat from a mostly white state in New England. Declaring the Oscars to be “so white” and giving the Best Picture award to a film with a rogues gallery of pasty faced Irish Catholic villains from Boston is not going to get you ostracized from your Pilates classes in West Hollywood. It’s going to get you a pat on the back.

As pure film making, Carol should have won Best Picture. Feminists might have preferred Mad Max Fury Road, but both are such different films from Spotlight it’s a case of apples and oranges. The Big Short, however, not only the same thing twice as well as Spotlight does. It’s has a politically riskier, far more subversive narrative, and, while no truly great performances, far better acting. What makes The Big Short a more accomplished film than Spotlight is the way it takes a complex subject and boils it down to a compelling, and quite frankly suspenseful narrative. It doesn’t take a genius to convince people that child abuse is wrong. If a priest seduces a 12-year-old boy from a disadvantaged background into giving him a blow job, I think we can all pretty much agree that this priest is a villain and deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. The bankers who destroyed the economy in 2008, however, got away with it mainly because credit default swaps and sub-prime mortgages are not only difficult to figure out. The corporate media refused to report the truth. In the Big Short, Director Adam McKay does what the journalists couldn’t, or wouldn’t do themselves. In Spotlight, Tom McCarthy just repeats the same, Pulitzer Prize winning story the Boston Globe had already told more than 10 years ago.

As far as acting goes, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell don’t have to do very much, but they enjoy every moment of what they do. There were no “heroes” in The Big Short. The men who expose the conditions that caused the housing bubble were unlikeable assholes who were doing it for the money. The Big Short is a fun movie to watch because the actors are having so much fun making it. The only newspaper man we see is a spineless hack unwilling to risk his job. The credit reporting agencies are not only out and out frauds. They haven’t sued. That pretty much guarantees that everything the movie says about them is true.

Spotlight could have done more with the acting talent it had.

Since the Boston Globe was complicit in the vast conspiracy to cover up the child abuse in the Catholic Church right along with Cardinal Law, the screenplay gives Michael Keaton, who plays Walter V. Robinson, the Globe editor who buried the original story back in 1993, every opportunity to express some kind of emotional anguish, to help us understand his decision to expose an institution that had been so important a part of his upbringing and education. He mostly just walks around looking as if he has a bad case of indigestion. Rachel McAdams doesn’t have much to do at all. A scene with her grandmother, a religious Catholic, just falls flat. Another scene, where she interviews a victim of a pedophile priest, just strikes me badly written and even homophobic. He remarks how handsome a sleazy lawyer is. She sympathetically puts her hand on his shoulder. She comes off like “the attractive young district attorney” from a Law and Order SVU episode. He comes off like a nervous fag. Mark Ruffalo at least tries, but the results don’t quite match the effort he puts into the role. One emotional outburst might best be compared to the satirical “Oscar Clip” from the original Wayne’s World film. He cares about child abuse and lets us know that goddammit he’ll never be able to go to church again. The problem is I never for a moment believed that he was a Portuguese American Catholic from Boston having a crisis of faith. He came off exactly like what he is, an earnest, progressive, and secular Hollywood actor playing the part of a man having a crisis of faith.

Final Note: Interestingly enough, Spotlight never mentions that Cardinal Bernard Francis Law escaped prosecution in the United States because the Pope reassigned him to the Vatican, which is its own country with its own laws. Will Spotlight push the Obama Administration into demanding his extradition? My guess would be no. Unlike Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning, Cardinal Law will die quietly in his bed without ever having to face any kind of justice other than hell (which doesn’t exist).

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18 comments

  1. Hey, I read your review, and although it’s a good written article, I can’t agree with you on that one. Spotlight winning best picture is the fresh wind we all hoped to get since the begining of the 2000’s. I will explain. First of, although the movie has a theme that is striking and which is garanteed to bring controversy or talk about it, the movie is the highlight, not the theme. It is a very very subtle film and if you are in the filmmaking business, then you would hail it as a masterpiece. The title alone is great ‘Spotlight’, which refers to something or someone being in the spotlight and of course the article inside the paper is called spotlight, but when you think about it, who was in the spotlight during the movie? The cardinal didn’t appear more then two minutes onscreen, the crew which does the article is also not in the spotlight, because we practically don’t know anything personal from them, besides they want the truth, so they are not in the spotlight, so who is and why? The other thing is the cinematography. Every shot where our ‘heroes’ find new information about the case, there is a church seen above their heads, as to say, ‘we are watching you’, the ongoing threat that controlls the city, Hitchcockian style (very subtle, but it becomes obvious when you look for it). Then the ending, the crew was on the case immidately, no one had anything to say against the case, because they are all thinking in the right way. A job is a job, personal interference has nothing to do with journalism. So, they meticuliosly try to find evidence against the church, and they do find a lot, even that Michel Keaton’s character sweeped it under the rug at some point. Now, in any other Hollywood movie, there would be the extra dramatic moment, people accusing Michael and people would cry, maybe even get fired, the big showdown people are accustomed to, but here, this is where things slow down for good. ‘It’s everybody’s fault and no one should be ashamed, now is the time to react’ is the message. The only rewarding sentence these guys got is from the Editor (Liev Schreiber), he said ‘I am proud of you, you all did a great job’, silent moment, end credits. There is no scene everyone expected where a crowd of people is standing and protesting in front of the church and yell or attack that are people going into the church, and we didn’t get to see the cardinal regrets his desicions, no they left it completely out, for a reason. The whole movie is playing the contrast to a normal Academy Award nominated picture, the complete opposite to what people expect it to be.This is the independent thought which should be hailed and respected, because it tells us, there is more a movie can gives us, besides tearjerkers (Son of Saul) or catastrophic events (The Revenant) or the human right stuff (The Danish Girl). The music in the movie is perfect, very tense for a story which is not at all, the music underscores the thoughts of the audience, not the movie. There is some more stuff about the movie and I already talked too much. I’m sorry if you missunderstood my comment as an attack of sorts, it wasn’t my attention. I like your writing, I read other articles as well, but thought I would want to say something about Spotlight. Keep up the good work 😀

    1. I think you make a good case for what the movie is trying to do. You get at the intentions behind its narrative. But I still don’t really think it works as a film.

      Certainly it has nothing like the moment in Carol when Carol and Therese find out that they’re being spied on by a private detective, that the patriarchy is always watching.

      In Spotlight I never get the sense Michael Keaton feels he’s being watched. I don’t understand exactly why he buried the earlier story. I wish his performance would have provided some clue as to his motivations but I just don’t think he’s a very good actor.

      Theoretically the Boston Globe being part of the cover up is very compelling. Dramatically it doesn’t work. It feels more like a redemption story, one where we find ourself back at a traditional American homage to the newspaper industry (similar to All the President’s Men), than a story about the all pervasive nature of evil.

      1. It feels as Michael Keaton isn’t reacting and giving something people need, it felt like Michael had to have a speech on his own like Mark Ruffallo, to convince the audience he changed or accepted his fault, but I am happy he didn’t. Behind the scenes material offers insight where the characters are standing by the real people from Boston Globe and Michael nailed him. He could have give a performance like in Birdman, but he relly picked up the statue and behaviour of the real guy, I really support that desicion. As for all other subtle nuances the movie offers, I think a movie is better when not telling everything directly,like Victor Erice or Tarkovsky. Sure, both are icons but when they first hit the theatre no one understood them either. And although Tom McCarthy is no Tarkovsky I reallly appreciate the try, because the other nominated movies, we saw many times before.

        1. He probably got the surface of the real Walter V. Robinson right. I just wish he would have hinted at something of the emotional struggle inside. It’s really hard to tell if the character is a bad guy or not, although that might be the writing, not the acting.

          The narrative is just too wedded to the idea of the heroic newspaperman to genuinely convey the kind of spiritual rot that would have allowed it to fully express the way the Boston Globe supposedly colluded with the Catholic Church.

          Compare it to the brief scene in The Big Short at Standards and Poors. There were have no illusions that the credit ratings agencies were anything but morally compromised and in bed with the crooked banks.

          1. I completely understand your viewpoint but I think that was the intention. To let the actions speak and not words, they are heroes and good inside because they are about to bring the truth out, what you are looking for is the common thing mainstream movies make when conveying a message like: ‘my head hurts’, the actor is holding his head… The amount of information was enough to see the goal standing before them, there was no direct emotion needed, but because everyone learned the way to see the movie, it is unacceptable to be different, different mean bad directing. I think this is really needed in Hollywood. This kind of subtle treatment, not the flashy treatment as Carol or Danish girl did.

  2. […] Source: Spotlight (2015) […]

  3. Philomena and Magdelen Sisters are films about the abuses of the Catholic Church but it’s not about the sex abuse…which until today, is still the thing they are trying to cover up or minimize. The ‘cover’ may be blown but the church is still trying to minimize It or deflect attention away from it. I don’t want to sound like a total cynic as I am a practicing Catholic as well, but the current pope’s message of focusing the attention on the poor and downtrodden etc is sort of his way of changing the narrative about the church. I haven’t seen the film yet, but my friends who have, especially people who are interested in investigative journalism or documentary filmmaking find this film very rewarding.
    Abusing young ‘fallen’ girls and then stealing their babies from them to sell is evil, and it’s a crime, but it’s not the same evil or the same crime as sex abuse, it’s “apples and oranges”…Philomena doesn’t represent the full spectrum of the crimes of the Catholic Church, and specifically, it doesn’t address its most evil sin, which is the sexual abuse of children. Also, Philomena, and the title character herself, is forgiving towards the church and she is still a practicing Catholic today, which is neither here or there, but my point is Philomena is a sort of redemptive film. I must see “Spotlight”, “The Short List”, “Carol” and “Brooklyn”, The Revnant and Mad Max I will see later…they seem a big long winded.

    1. The girls at the orphanage in Philomena may have been old enough to have children but they were children. One of the most chilling scenes in that movie was the one where they’re waiting to see their babies as if they’re waiting to see Santa Claus. Nothing in Spotlight brought home the moral evil of the church as well as that did. Also, the idea of an all pervasive Church in Ireland is more believable than it is in secular, liberal Boston. Certainly there was a huge conspiracy, but I think the idea that Boston is a benighted little Catholic village where Jews and Armenians are outsiders was a bit contrived.

      1. I am not comparing which crime is worse – abusing young vulnerable girls physically by and emotionally or sexual Abuse of children. But I Spotlight is really a movie about investigative journalism. And those who are into that really felt they did their well by their profession.

        1. Basically, which is why I liked The Big Short so much more. Spotlight pats the newspapers on the back while simultaneously acknowledging they were complicit in the conspiracy. The Big Short tells us that the corporate media is utterly corrupt and the people who initially exposed the housing bubble were self-seeking assholes trying to make a buck. Spotlight feels like it just stepped out of time warp from the 1970s. The Big Short feels like it actually addresses our society as it is in 2016.Nothing in Spotlight brings the idea of corruption home quite so well as this.

  4. Spotlight is a solid film, not spectacular. It’s also moving without being over-manipulative. Perhaps The Revenant and The Big Short are better films but possibly both too smug and pleased with themselves for me. Carol is just exquisite and should have received far more recognition. Thanks for the review!

    1. It wasn’t really a bad movie, but unlike in the Big Short, the narrative did drag a bit. Michael Keaton’s reluctance to publish the story felt more like a way of padding out the movie than it did as something that grew out of his character.

      The one scene that genuinely worked for me was the victim in the lawyer’s office where he described how the priest won his trust before seducing him. “It was like getting God’s approval.” Had there been more of that and it could have been a great movie. But Spotlight gave us too much of the newspaper reporters and too little of the victims.

      1. Sure. The reveal of Robbie’s culpability was underplayed but the movie wasn’t really about that, I guess. The picture was definitely at its most moving when focusing on the victims.

        1. And even the portrayal of the victims I think was uneven. The scene in Garabedian’s office with Patrick was the film’s one great scene.

          The scene between Sacha Pfeiffer and the guy who spilled coffee over himself honestly just seemed like an unintentional homophobic caricature. They were trying to portray how emotionally damaged he was, but they just didn’t want to take enough time to establish the character. So they took an easy shortcut. It was TV level writing, more suited to Law and Order SVU than to a Best Picture winner.

          1. Harsh but fair!

            1. I never believed Rachel McAdams was anything but what she is, a Canadian WASP good looking enough to have made it Hollywood. She doesn’t even try to work up a Boston accent. I’m not saying she’s a bad actress, just that her role doesn’t require to do very much, and she didn’t try to do very much with what she had. Probably not her fault. The director seemed to be consciously trying to subordinate the acting to the overall narrative. He probably should have gone the full Robert Bresson and used non-actors.

  5. “Spotlight” was a movie that some people loved and a lot of people liked. Very few found it completely lacking.

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/goldstandard/la-et-mn-how-spotlight-won-best-picture-20160229-column.html

  6. […] Men, to Howard Hawk’s romantic comedy His Girl Friday, to the 2016 Best Picture winner Spotlight, Hollywood has traditionally celebrated newspaper reporters. The great exception is Ace in the […]

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