Wednesday, April 13, 2016


After all the controversy about the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations of 2015, the show itself almost felt like an anti climax.  Yes, Chris Rock's very funny and incisive hosting job was really what the show needed, but the awards themselves almost seemed besides the point, and sure enough, its TV ratings were the lowest in years.  As the evening wore on, it appeared that George Miller's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD was winning all the technical awards and Alejandro Inarritu's THE REVENANT was winning the more prestigious awards, with Inarritu pulling off his second best director award in a row (after his win for the previous year's BIRDMAN).  But then the best picture winner turned out to be Tom McCarthy's serious docu-drama SPOTLIGHT, which only won one other award, for its original screenplay.  But then, was that really such a surprise?  SPOTLIGHT is a solid, well made and acted film about a dark and important subject (the Catholic priest child abuse cover up) that celebrates the importance of good journalism.  It's the kind of intelligent  movie for adults that the Academy usually awards, and in my opinion, this time with good reason. It's an excellent film that will be studied years from now as a document of the discovery of a still unfolding scandal.

Micheal Keaton and Mark Ruffalo

Director Tom McCarthy began his career as a minor actor before moving into writing and directing highly regarded independent films  like 2003's THE STATION AGENT and 2007's THE VISITOR.  Working with TV writer Josh Singer, McCarthy finished the script for SPOTLIGHT in 2013; it sat on the shelf for a while, winding up on the 2013 Blacklist of best unproduced screenplays, before becoming a US and Canadian co production for four separate film studios.  The quality and importance of the script brought some big name stars like Micheal Keaton, Mike Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams to the film, despite its relatively low budget.  Shot  mostly on location in Boston, the production put a lot of effort into getting the historic details of the story right, with cast and crew consulting the real people that were portrayed on screen.  Rightly sensing the film's Award appeal, the studios released it in late November to almost universal acclaim; it was also a modest box office success, grossing around $40,000,000 in the US on a budget around $20,000,000.
Set in Boston in 2001, it tells the story of how the newspaper the Boston Globe, at the urging of new editor Marty Barron(Liev Schreiber ), investigates the story of a Catholic priest who was accused of child molestation better never tried.  This single case grows into a handful of pedophile priests, and then gets even larger, encompassing around ninety priests in the Boston area, none of whom ever faced jail.  The dogged research of reporters Robby Robertson (Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (McAdams) and Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) reveals that higher ups in the catholic church worked with lawyers and law enforcement to make sure that the cases were never seriously investigated.  Despite the church's efforts to kill the story, it is eventually released, causing the paper's phone lines to be flooded by calls from other victims of priests.

The movie begins in Boston with a flashback all the way to 1976 when we see a priest at a police station, arrested for child molestation, being released by an uninterested police force and the district attorney. A young cop is stunned, while the officers around him shrug it off, like it's standard procedure.  It's a chilling scene that immediately identifies the power and influence that the Catholic church had in the heavily Catholic Boston at that time.    Without hitting the audience over the head, the film effectively shows the special exemption that religious organizations often get when dealing with legal issues, especially one as big as the Catholic church.  As Mike Garabedian(Stanley Tucci), an attorney representing abused children puts it, "If it takes a village to raise a chld, then it takes a village to abuse one."

 MccCarthy's directorial style in the film is straightforward and not flashy; he realizes that the strength of the performances and the drama of the story is compelling enough without filling it with pretty and slick images.  The same goes for Howard Shore's strong but subtle piano based score, which is used sparingly; the scenes in which the adult survivors of abuse describe their horrible experiences, the most emotional moments of the film, effectively have no music playing underneath them to underline the emotion.

But the film is not just a screed against the Catholic church, it's more a celebration of the importance of investigative journalism rooting out corruption, wherever that corruption may lie.   And the reporters are all portrayed as serious professionals with an important job to do, and we see them combing through files and micro films, doing tough interviews and having doors slammed in their faces. Except for one scene where Rezendes and Robertson argue over when to release the story, they are tight lipped and calm.  For example, Liev Shreiber as chief editor Marty Barron never raises his voice once, but he still seems to radiate intellect in every scene he's in.  He  knows that this story will be huge, and he wants to be sure to get it right.   The information they gather for their story has no single breaking moment, (although they are surprised to see just how many priests may be involved) instead it's about the discovery of one fact after another until an inevitable case is made.  Even if all the legal in and outs of the story can get a bit confusing, we are always with the reporters as they doggedly work their way forward.

One of the most striking things about SPOTLIGHT is that it truly is an ensemble film about a determined group effort, with no single protagonist standing out, and therefore it's hard to hold one performance over all the others; the whole cast is excellent, right down to the actors playing adult survivors of abuse who have to give powerful performances in just a handful of scenes.

  And it's to the film's credit that the Catholic church itself has not responded negatively to it, perhaps realizing that the facts of the film are true, and that complaining about it would just remind the public of the scandal itself.  In any event, the film reaches that rare place in movies: a fictionalized account of real events that can be looked at as a historically accurate document.  Like SHINDLER'S LIST, attention was put into the details of the film, making it feel like history come to life.  On that level it's a complete success.


I think it's obvious that I find that SPOTLIGHT was a fine choice for best picture.  Although I enjoyed THE BIG SHORT, Adam McKay's crazy comic look at the 2008 economic crash, and INSIDE OUT, Pete Docter's wildly creative and entertaining animated film, more than it, it's still a solid movie that deserved all it's accolades, especially for it's find ensemble acting.