Many people were surprised when Spotlight won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. There were even gasps of surprise in the audience when it was announced the winner, as The Revenant was considered the favourite at that point. I was not one of those surprised by Spotlight winning the top prize, however. I knew it was the one to beat. And I am not saying that because I thought it a great film or even a deserving winner, I might add.
Spotlight tells the true story of how an investigative team at the Boston Globe newspaper took on the might of the Roman Catholic Church in the early 2000s to unravel child abuse of epic, horrific dimensions by Catholic priest. It was thanks to their painstaking and relentless investigations that the Spotlight team (the name of the investigative reporting section of the newspaper) were able to expose the sheer extent of the abuse, not to mention just how pervasive the moral rot had become in Boston society. Their tenacity in seeking the truth is the stuff of journalism lore and is revered to this day in journalism classes as the way investigative reporting should be done. It is a far cry from the embedded, corporatist sycophancy that passes for journalism in most of today’s mainstream media.
Then why does such tenacity and a story so full of human drama and tragedy come across so limp in this film? Spotlight takes a very specific stance, in which we get caught up with the minutiae and grind of reporting. It is clearly an intentional construct in slow-burning, dispassionate revelation which, for this reviewer, did not work. The effect is too emotionally distancing, too disengaging. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the angry passion? Where’s the visceral sense that terrible things were done? Surely the story warranted that? The approach is instead too stolid and cerebral for its own good. And cerebral does not need to be this studied and dry and this distanced.
Too often the problem with a film that doesn’t hit the mark is the screenplay. That is not the case here. One thing that Spotlight does have is a superb screenplay. Its writing is uncluttered, crisp and always on point, and it thoroughly deserved the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I blame the failure on the too softly and too calm direction by Tom McCarthy. His previous efforts like The Visitor and Win Win were subtle for all the right reasons, and better films. And the cast, so lauded and actors I usually so love, just did not deserve all their praise. Michael Keaton as editor of the team is good, but he was not Supporting Actor Oscar nomination-worthy. Nor were Mark Ruffalo, who chewed scenery in one particularly embarrassing, pontificating scene, or Rachel McAdams, usually so endearing yet strangely one-dimensional here, deserving of their nominations. Paul Dano in Love & Mercy, Michael Shannon in 99 Homes and Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy should have been nominated instead for their far more demanding and excellent supporting roles.
Child abuse is the witch hunt topic du jour. Guaranteed to get people into a froth of moral outrage, which is understandable, it is indefensible and everyone knows how to react. Throw the Catholic Church into the mix and you have a sure-fire topic that hits nerves and galvanizes opinion. It’s a topic that has been done to stunning effect in films like Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters and Aisling Walsh’s Song For a Raggy Boy. They were films of raw emotion. It’s a topic that lends itself to great cinema. Spotlight is not that film. It is a watchable and competently made film, almost old-fashioned in its moviemaking. And that’s fine. It is a well-intentioned, decent effort but it is not cinematically great. And therein lays the problem: it simply isn’t great. Mark my words: time will not judge Spotlight as being a worthy Best Picture Oscar winner.
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