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).