It’s rather hard to judge a film like Spotlight. The topic of child abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church is extremely powerful and arouses strong emotions, and the film boasts an exceptional ensemble cast (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci) who all put in good performances. At the same time, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the way the movie’s made – it has no visual flair and while the characters were solid none of them really grabbed me. To someone who sees visuals and characters as two of the main pleasures of the cinema it’s a serious drawback. Yet one can also argue that the film’s drabness, unfussy cinematography and lack of focus on one particular character works in its favour, grounding it in a way that a more flashy approach wouldn’t and putting the focus back on the larger topic and the process of investigation.
The movie tells the true story of Spotlight, an investigative unit within The Boston Globe newspaper, who in 2001 are urged to focus on the shady dealings within the Church by their new boss, an outsider by the virtue of a) not being from Boston and b) being Jewish and unmarried. At first the focus is on one priest, alleged to have molested dozens of children, but it then becomes obvious that there’s a whole invisible system in place protecting the abusive priests, and the evidence that Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston, knew about it. Rather than exposing one bad apple, the unit’s investigation becomes about exposing the corruption within the system itself.
What I liked the best about the film is that, rather than just pointing a finger at the Church (and it does that plenty as it should), it also examines the complicity of people who look the other way, and the importance of the outsider’s view. As one of the characters remarks, It may take a village to raise a child but it takes a village to abuse one too. The paper, as it turns out, have been tipped off about the sexual abuse allegations before, but did nothing to pursue the subject, partly out of fear that the strongly religious local community wouldn’t take kindly to attacks on the Church. Some characters who at first are made out to be clear-cut villains or heroes turn out to be a tad more complicated than that. Also, while the film is merciless towards the corrupt organisation, it doesn’t mock the faith itself; while none of the Spotlight team are hardcore Catholics, they all have some kind of tie to the Church and their findings cause them a great deal of personal anguish. There’s also a very strong sense of a place and it reminded me again that I’d really like to visit Boston one day, even as the film was exposing the rottenness within its community.
It’s very tempting to write off Spotlight as yet another Oscar-baiting movie about “important” issue, but in all honesty, in the end it just doesn’t feel like one. There’s absolutely nothing contrived about it and its big emotional moments. The interviews with the victims of abuse could have felt terribly manipulative and shmaltzy, but instead they do come off as raw and real and the whole thing plays more like a mean lean thriller than a melodrama. I appreciated the fact that, while the film moved like a freight train, I could still follow all the threads and bits of information it doled out. When your brain is a tad fried after a busy day at work, a nice clean narrative and good diction is much appreciated.