2015/ USA

Director: Tom McCarthy

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian d’arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery

Words: J. Senior

So with one fell swoop, and another night of scandalous amounts of glitz and glam, this years awards season has drawn to a climactic end.

However, as is typical, The Academy Awards tended to stray from the script layed down by The BAFTAS and has instead this year given its most coveted prize to Spotlight, in place of The Revenant which took top billing on this side of The Atlantic.

I think it’s fair to say that this is a breath of fresh air from all of the overwhelming news we’ve had about Leo finally bagging his first Actor’s Oscar and director Alejandro González Iñárritu going for a rare back-to-back director’s award. The fact that Spotlight has won in the face of a film that has proved such an artistic juggernaut is completely staggering. Spotlight isn’t a high piece of art, the actors didn’t spend nine months out in the wilderness filming it or experience anything as arduous as the cast of The Revenant did. However, Spotlight differs in the fact that it is a film that matters. It is a film about a real, modern scandal, that still openly effects millions of people to this day. 

The story begins in 2001 when the new editor of The Boston Globe Marty Baron (Schreiber) assigns the paper’s investigative team Spotlight, to investigate child sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church from the 1970’s and 80’s. These cases had been covered in smaller columns but never directly addressed in the intervening years. Baron’s singular belief in the importance of the story pits The Boston Globe at war against the Boston Archdiocese, two of the city’s largest institutions, and sparks a social and political war.

The Spotlight team is made up of Walter Robinson (Keaton) the team’s editor, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Matt Carroll (d’arcy James). Each gives an incredible yet refined performance in this story. We see how each member deals with the crimes they uncover on a religious and personal level. How the unexpected weight of the story begins to lay down on them all, as they uncover more and more atrocities and realise, that their story is one of global importance. What began as a method of boosting The Boston Globe’s waning readership eventually morphs into a moral quest to hold The Catholic Church to account for its actions. With the help of an enigmatic lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) they attempt to break down the systemic levels that The Church has in place in Boston, and we see how the American Judicial System was twisted in an attempt to cover up a large number of child abuse cases.

The important thing to remember with this film, is that challenging The Catholic Church in Boston is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Boston is one of America’s largest Irish settlements and The Catholic Church does not take a passive stance within the city, it has eyes and ears everywhere, at all levels of bureaucracy. As one of the victims in the film says “when a priest comes to your house and asks you do to something, how can you say no? It’s like saying no to God”. It makes for an all the more upsetting story, and shows simply how malicious these priests were, by using religion as a gateway to fulfilling their criminal desires. What begins as a story about a few crooked priests blows up into a full blown scandal and even is described at one point as a psychiatric phenomenon.

The truly great thing about this film is the performances from all of the leading players involved. It’s a tough subject that they are tasked with addressing here and each plays their part to perfection. No one takes centre stage and each actor simply plays their part without frills or fuss in a singular bid to give this story the retelling it deserves. You almost get the feeling that the cast began to take on the burden of the real Spotlight team, weighed down by the gravitas of the story they were writing. Each of them is believable, and no one tries to steal focus. Films based on real life and current events have rarely been so true to the story they were inspired by.

Mark Ruffalo probably gets the plaudits if you have to pick one of them out, but that is more down to his character than anything else. Michael Rezendes is, if we can call him this, the comedic member of the team. He isn’t afraid to kick down doors to get the information he needs, and he interrogates people with his happy-go-lucky nature. At one point he waits at the entrance to a legal archive all night to make sure he is the first person to gain access the next morning. He is driven and completely selfless at the same time. The other characters are a little bit more complex and withdrawn, but Rezendes is on the surface and completely up front with his emotions. Ruffalo gets a good monologue towards the end of the film as tensions run high, that you’ll have seen at all the Awards ceremonies. That isn’t to say he out acts anyone, but he does put in a memorable display.

Spotlight may be an unexpected winner all told, but it’s actually less so than you may think. The Academy Awards love to shell of the Best Picture Award to films that show America at its best. Now, it is clear to see that the film isn’t positive in its portrayal of Boston in the 70’s and 80’s. But, it is an incredible example of Americans coming together to solve a problem in their own society. The only way it could be more patriotic is if Michael Keaton ran around waving a giant Stars and Stripes as he chases leads and hounds lawyers. For that fact alone, it makes it a more likely winner than The Revenant, which is a staggering artistic effort but says little about the world in a wider sense.

I think it extends beyond pro-Americanism and is really pro-humanity. It is a film about people doing the right thing in expense of their own lives. It is something that we should all aspire to, and it gives the film an incredibly worthy punch. Unlike other films of recent years that have followed a similar veign like Argo for example. We can forgive Spotlight its schmaltzy American values for the simple fact that is not just a film for America. It is a film about the human spirit in its purest; free of ego, personal gain or selfish achievements. For that fact, and that fact alone. It deserves its Oscar and will truly live longer in the memory than the others than ran against it this year.