Sometimes the Oscars leave many people scratching their heads, Googling whatever movie just won Best Picture because they haven’t even heard of it. Make sure you don’t miss this year’s winner, though. “Spotlight” is indeed a worthy selection, a true story and a perfectly executed ensemble drama that creates excitement through perfectly calibrated, ever-expanding revelations.
Let me just also say that “Mad Max: Fury Road” deserved every one of those technical awards it won. It’s a pure action film, to be sure, but what a marvelous, inventive spectacle. It is the most stupendous, artistic example of the form you could ever imagine. Maybe it didn’t have the best screenplay, or even any screenplay, but “Best Production Design?” Possibly Best Ever.
“Spotlight,” on the other hand, drives its story in quite a different fashion. It’s a celebration of dedication and competence. Characters hunch over directories, clippings and files. They compile databases and underline. It’s glorious. It has microfiche! All of the film’s most thrilling moments involve finding important information on paper.
What the intrepid characters in “Spotlight” — named after the long form investigative journalism section in the Boston Globe — are researching is the systematic cover-ups of decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. While most viewers already know the scope of the story, which broke in January 2002, it is still riveting to watch as the characters experience wave after wave of shock and disbelief at the number of cases involved. They think they have found a big story when they uncover 13 priests, and it just keeps growing and growing.
As shocking as the abuse is, it is the collusion to keep it secret that truly rocks the reporters to the core, and, as professionals charged with reporting the truth, they do not spare themselves the guilt. The greatest outrage is saved not for those who did it, but for those who let them do it. The interviews conducted with adult survivors are sensitive and moving, but the encounters with lay people, such as lawyers aiding in the secret legal settlements between the victims and the church, can be even more unbelievable.
Throughout the film, little scenes and exchanges brilliantly explicate how personal friendships, long standing relationships and a deeply ingrained respect for the church institution worked together to allow this. In bars and on the golf course, it simply becomes impossible to imagine exposing the people involved. As Stanley Tucci’s character says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”
For those who might be avoiding the film because of its subject matter, the film is about journalism. The journalism is about molestation, but all the action of the film takes place in the aftermath of these terrible crimes. The drama is stronger in that it doesn’t sensationalize shocking, disgusting things taking place; somehow, the stories are all the more powerful being reported rather than depicted. In telling, the victims reclaim some power, and the reporters interviewing them bring a measure of sanity through their straightforward, factual, even grammatical approach.
“Spotlight” is not just about bringing some measure of justice to the victims, and the catharsis of realizing they were not, by far, the only victims. By bringing the truth into the light, the reporters exorcised the ghosts of shame that haunted these people. It is also a larger story about the heroism of telling profoundly difficult truths in any number of situations. Is it a paean to hard work, staying up all night working, waiting on a bench for an office to open, running through the street to work because you have something so important to do and to say. It was exciting to watch people try, care, believe and, of course, witness the profound impact of their efforts.
To see that big fat stack of newspapers thud the morning the story broke was utterly spine tingling and, although the events are fairly recent, they also capture a pre-social media moment, when the Internet was still young, that is painfully, beautifully old-fashioned. When news breaks every second, to watch professionals toil for months or more on a single investigative story makes you realize how vitally important that endeavor still is.
“Spotlight” is curr ently available to rent and is playing at the Regal Mobile Stadium 18, Carmike Jubilee Square 12, Eastern Shore Premiere Cinema and Carmike Wharf.