Spotlight is one of the movies nominated in the 88th Academy Awards (commonly known as Oscars) for the categories Best in Original Screenplay, Best in Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. Here’s my take on why it got nominated and won. Spoilers are expected as this article is about my own review and thoughts on the movie in general.
The motion picture was based on actual events and persons and organizations. For dramatic purposes, certain characters, incidents, locations and dialogue may have been fictionalized; timelines compressed, and the dates and/or locations of certain events shifted.
The film begins in Boston, 2001, when, the four-person team consisting of its editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) – and his three investigative journalists, Mike Rezendez (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) collectively known as Spotlight, are tasked by Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the newly hired editor-in-chief of Boston Globe, to flesh out and do a follow on a story by a fellow Globe columnist Eileen McNamara about sexual abuse allegations of a Catholic priest against a minor, and what seems to be the cover-up by Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archdiocese of Boston. Spotlight, which has been around since the 1970s, is the investigative reporting unit of Boston Globe. They can spend months on a single story they choose and have full autonomy on their articles only needing to answer to their superiors. They are at first hesitant to work on the story, seeing Baron, also the first Jewish editor-in-chief of the Globe, as an outsider to Boston. Their first task is to see if they can have some court documents on the case unsealed, which means suing the Catholic Church, which is no easy task. Although the abuse looks like a few scattered incidents at first, the team digs deeper and sees that it isn’t quite so, however throughout the investigation, they receive push backs from institutions and individuals inside their own community. Beyond that one step, Robby and his team talk to lawyers who have or are working on alleged sex abuse cases perpetrated by Catholic priests in Boston, known victims and insiders in the Catholic Church.
Personal views of each reporter were also closely filmed. Marty Baron, the editor-in-chief, who occasionally appeared in social gatherings and had a private meeting with the Cardinal of Boston at the time, was given a copy of a book on Catechism by the cardinal himself. Mike on the legal part of the investigation, to which he was asked: “Where is the editorial responsibility in publishing sensitive records like these?” And he responded, “Where is the editorial responsibility in not publishing them?” Sacha, the one tasked on interviewing the victims afraid to come out in the open. It was she who said that “… the language is going to be important here. We can’t sanitize this. Just saying molested isn’t enough. People need to know what actually happened.” Matt, who lived a block away from one of the alleged pedophile priests posted a warning note for his children on their refrigerator to stay away from the house.
Through their investigation, they get wind that the problem is not contained to one priest and one victim, essence changing the focus from the priests(s) to the systemic problem of the Archdiocese not only covering up the abuse but in reality doing nothing to stop it and thus condoning it. It was to make people be aware and do something of a culture of secrecy that protects pedophiles. And after an Irish Catholic judge decided to rule against the church and make sealed documents public again, the rest then, was easy; the web of truth – almost untangled. The Boston Globe had all the pieces then; the priest, the victim, the lawyer, and the evidence; yet they buried it. And in the midst of all this blame and hatred for seeing and not even bothering to look, Baron’s line sums it all up: Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark, suddenly the light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame around.
The film showed great respect for its audience; throughout, the audience can feel that they are part of the investigation and the drama of it all. Simply put, the viewer is allowed to be alongside the actors. However, the film is demanding. It requires the viewer’s full attention or he will get lost. The film is entirely narrative and a bit draggy at times because of the background music but the directing was made to not dwell on dramatic shortcuts, and superb acting, as to be expected in its star power cast and experienced director, helped the film be very effective in delivering its message.
The story showed a very broad account of events and it is not about the uncovered events but the uncovering of the events. Not only did the film Spotlight manage to condense a year-long investigation to just functional dialogue but they managed to do so with intricate drama, acting and story-telling. As each scene plays out, the momentum rises and the inevitable outcome getting to a close – the viewer, along with the actors, are faced with the fact that they have so desperately tried to untangle. It’s a thriller not rushing towards the finish line. You sense the relentlessness but you know that from the beginning what you are going to find is upsetting and disturbing.
The movie convincingly showed how investigative journalism isn’t just a luxury for newspapers but a necessity. And that even with it, we are imperfect. The film has shown the importance of reporting. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact. And that after all, a paper’s worth is not measured by the number of its subscribers but by whether it is essential to its readers.
Simply put, the film was draggy, taut, long and very narrative. But it was in all ways, well-intentioned. After watching the film for the third time now, I am now sure of my answer to this question: “Would you betray an institution that created the environment for abuse to occur?” Out of its 4 nominations, the Spotlight team won 2 of it, Best Screenplay and Best Picture.
Completely unflashy, Spotlight isn’t quite cinematic but tells a story that I feel is something so important and so this tale is, in every manner, well-intentioned and interesting. At the end of the movie, there were, according to them, 249 priests and brothers publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese alone. Major abuse scandals have also been uncovered in over 200 places, including the Philippines. So you see why I had to write about it.