A small team of journalists of the Boston Globe, Spotlight, investigates the abuse of kids by a catholic priest. The new editor who was brought in to stimulate the newspaper demands that they expand their investigation, and the Spotlight team unravels a scandal bigger than anyone imagined.
Spotlight is a strong, solid film that doesn’t really call attention to its filmmaking. The acting for example is very good, but no single performance calls for the spotlight (besides Michael Keaton making duckfaces for two hours), and all members of the investigative team are given roughly similar screen times. Spotlight itself as the team is more or less the main character, but even the team itself is only in service of uncovering the big scandal of child rape. I think the writers and director would be annoyed that I am reviewing the film itself, instead of talk about its topic.
Spotlight, as the second scandal movie of the year, the other one being The Big Short, takes a very different approach. The Big Short relied on strange characters, autistic and angry and full of passionate feelings and big statements, perhaps to overcompensate for the dry financial material. Spotlight is the opposite film: all the characters are controlled, poised, and showing a detached professionalism (except for Rezendes (Ruffalo), who is personally more shaken), while the scandal itself is playing out step by step with ever increasing scale. And it is mostly up to the audience to figure out what to think about it.
Since the team didn’t realize that they had such a big story on their hands, the film starts slow, as just another day in the office. The new editor Baron (Liev Schreiber) is a competent but incredibly stoic character. Throughout the film he is a rock, hardly showing any emotion but guiding the team and checking their writing style. All characters in the film are understated like that, and they aren’t given much personal development or background. Still, actors like Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci show some strong acting.
The real star of the film is the script. It is very tight in how the scale of the scandal unfolds step by step. Not just that, but the film explores every aspect of the causes and consequences of the scandal. Like, people lose their faith because of this. And how some have found a way to remain religious without connection to the church, and how poor neighborhoods and poor social circumstances play a role, and the vow of celibacy for priests. Also, how people start thinking “it could have been me”, and how it affects family relationships and people fearing for their kids, and the element of peer pressure from others in the neighborhood. And the power of the church in legal matters and in court. The film is very all-encompassing in exploring how this scandal plays out, and it serves the info piecemeal with every tiny discovery.
It is also telling that while The Big Short tells us how its characters move into the future at the end, Spotlight drops its characters as not important, as just a vehicle for focusing on the scandal. It does feel like the film is missing some emotional involvement and a good dramatic punch. On the other hand, the film is very realistic and believable. Still, I think the film could have benefited by making one character the main one, and we see things play out from his eyes. Maybe Keaton’s role because he has a small character arc in the story already.
In any case, this film, while technically very well made and expertly written, is really only meant to communicate its message. You won’t hear yourself saying: “Hey, remember that one scene when this guy did that thing?” Instead, you’ll feel this buildup of sadness while the film plays out. A slow, depressive feeling that gets heavier and heavier.