It’s easy to be skeptical of a film like Spotlight. Often when a film receives such universal acclaim and is also in the wheelhouse of Oscar-baiting tropes, such as adapting a barely decade-old event into a “true story” feature, it is easy to see how eyes can glaze over and awards can be handed out purely out of instinct and habit. That isn’t to say that a film that fits this mold is usually bad, but its flaws are generally ignored in favor of elevating it above genre flicks that may have been of superior quality. However, that isn’t what’s happening with Spotlight. This is an honest-to-goodness amazing piece of filmmaking that will deservedly be recognized as one of the best of the year.
In January 2002, the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church’s protection and sheltering of pedophilic priests within its ranks. Spotlight is the story of the eponymous team that pursued that investigation in the preceding year, tracking down survivors, finding out about more and more priests involved at an exponential rate, and coming to terms with how the Boston community turned a blind eye to these events in favor of preserving the Church’s status quo.
At first, I was a bit off-put by the fact that there were no stand-out performances in this film, no lead to latch on to in order to act as an audience surrogate. But before long I realized that this wasn’t meant to be a film about a lone hero or even a single antagonist, but a film about people who have to come to terms with what is simultaneously the best and worst kept secret of their community. No performance stands out because they are all necessarily excellent, from Michael Keaton as the Spotlight team’s increasingly disturbed editor, to Rachel McAdams effortless portrayal of a woman in a male-dominated field, to a slightly neurotic turn by Mark Ruffalo that is deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. There are numerous others, both in large and small roles, but the entire film pulsates with realistic human emotion and a staggering sense of community between them.
And that sense of community may be the most tragic element to this story, as the film so masterfully portrays. Instead of veering into cliché and melodrama by making the Catholic Church into a monolithic entity of control and manipulation (though elements of that are definitely present in its portrayal), Spotlight instead opts to focus on how so many key players in Boston institutions had knowledge of the systemic rape of children, and yet nobody opted to do anything about it, or those that did choose to speak up were not acknowledged, even by the news institution that was now putting the pieces together. Relatedly, there is a fantastic red herring subplot that I will not spoil, but the reveal is so casual that the gut-punch twist is all the more effective because of it.
The film ends on a disquieting note just after the article is published and leaves an unsettling question mark over the future of Boston and its (and the world’s) relationship with the Catholic Church. This isn’t a film that begs for resolution, but rather asks us to examine ourselves and our communities and whether the perceived benefits of the status quo are worth the secrets we sweep under the rug to preserve it. This is masterwork filmmaking and I will be most pleased to see this film’s inevitable Oscar nominations.