If you were watching the Academy Awards this past February, you may have been just as surprised as I was that it wasn’t “The Revenant” that swept the Big One, even after winning Best Actor and Best Director. Instead, the top prize of Best Picture went to “Spotlight”, a quieter film about the investigative team behind the exposé of pedophile Catholic priests in Boston. My jaw actually dropped open when the announcement was made, and afterwards I jumped on the internet to find out what had made this film stand apart.
I had seen and loved “The Revenant”, and it seemed like perfect Best Picture bait. What made “Spotlight”, a film about such a hush-hush subject, beat out the baby of Alejandro Iñárritu? After watching “Spotlight” multiple times, I think I’m beginning to understand why.
“Spotlight” is about the titular investigative team at The Boston Globe, and their major breakthrough story to expose the Boston diocese in their crime of covering up for pedophile priests. Their findings ended up setting off a whirlwind of investigation into parishes around the world, resulting in multiple legal cases and exposures. The story had broken in 2002, and at that time I was too young to quite understand what had happened. I went to church every Sunday, but didn’t know what a pedophile was, or why my parents were so worried.
As I got older, I gradually came to understand the extent of the damage, and I’ll admit that my faith was shaken. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so fun to go to church anymore.
When it was revealed this year that “Spotlight” would be available on Netflix, I swallowed my pride and gave it a watch. I wanted my family to watch it too, and they did, though I think my sister did not enjoy it at all. She’s the most devout among us siblings, and I think it hurt to hear some of the things that were being said in these legal cases.
Discomfort is Part of Life
In the process of “becoming an adult” I have learned the hard lesson, through various incidences, that feeling uncomfortable is part of life. You cannot change most behaviors of other people, and you can’t control what happens to you. People will say offensive things, call you all sorts of labels, and expose certain truths that you didn’t want to know. But the strong are those who can take these incidents and become a better, cultured, and informed person.
“Spotlight” is full of uncomfortable topics. Pedophiles. Blind faith. Descriptions of sexual acts. 9/11. Child testimonies. Corrupt lawyers. But these scenes are presented in neutral ways that make the information more digestible.
For example, it goes without saying that we are saturated in grisly shows and movies that depict murder, rape, torture and more, even if it’s not directly on-camera. “Spotlight” could have gone the gratuitous route, shown you what these children went through, but they don’t. You hear what these victims went through, and it’s awful enough as it is. And just like a horror movie, you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks. This story is not just about the victims, but about the investigation.
Leading the charge into the investigation is Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, the new editor. He is the non-Catholic who doesn’t seem to hold any ill will toward the faith, but is skeptical of the legality behind the settled cases. He doesn’t blame the sheep for following wolf in shepherd’s clothing. It was interesting that his character was able to maintain a sort of distance between himself and the faith. The reporters, however, who were all raised Catholic, did not bode so well during the entire investigation.
I appreciated that you could see the war within the characters. These reporters are constantly fighting between disgust and duty, and the actors were absolutely brilliant in showing that tug-o-war in mind.
From the very beginning of the film, Michael Keaton’s character Walter “Robby” Robinson reminds the team that they must be as discreet as possible, and this conflict of emotion and action is eminent with every character. Rachel McAdams’ character Sacha Pfeiffer struggles to cover the story when her beloved Nana is a devout Catholic. Mark Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes can barely keep a level head as he strives to get ahold of the physical evidence they need. Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll, discovers that one of the priests lives in a house that his children walk by every day.
Just as a good movie should, there is frustration in every scene that leaves the audience hanging on to the tension like a fragile fishing line. The “will they, can they” scenarios that keep the pages turning in a book. While the reporters reflect the emotions of the audience, the editor maintains a cool head that balances them out to get the job done right.
Subtle Camera Work
“Spotlight” may not have the sweeping landscapes that “The Revenant” had, but the great camera work shows that even the smallest spaces can become big.
For example, there is a scene with the whole team gathered around a phone in their tiny office. They’re listening to a researcher reveal his findings about the psychological behavior of sexually active priests. As the conversation goes on, the camera is slowly pulling back, showing more and more of their empty office. When the big punch to the gut happens in the conversation, the audience becomes aware of just how alone this team is. They are all alone in an empty office, uncovering one of the biggest secrets in the Catholic church, and they alone now hold the information. With such a subtle camera move, the director shows you how small these reporters feel in a story this big.
Also, in this film the church leaves a large shadow. There were quite a few scenes where the camera had the actors in the foreground with a huge church looming in the back. There were times when it wasn’t a church, but the home of a priest appearing bigger than it actually was. Even in the end as Robby is watching the delivery trucks head out with their story stacked high in their containers, the trucks seem more huge and lumbering than usual. As though the weight of the story is falling on him in that moment.
What’s The Takeaway?
In spite of the stunning simplicity of this film, some may believe that this film is supposed to shake the faith of Catholics and Christians around the world. In the end I personally believe it does the opposite. What convinced me was something that a side character had said, by the name of Richard Sipe. He was an ex-priest who had researched the psychological behaviors of the sexually active priests, and Mike Rezendes had asked him the same question: had his research turned him away from the church?
To my surprise, Sipe’s answer was no. It went like this:
I believe that’s something every Catholic needs to hear. It was those last words that sealed the deal for me. No matter how corrupt or hopeless the world may seem, or being criticized for not being “Christian enough,” even from the ones I looked up to the most, my faith is my own. Your relationship with your God is your own, and no one can tell you otherwise.
See This Award Winner for Yourself
The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that there is one. Watching survivors tell their stories, even in a movie, can be so hard to swallow, but I strongly believe that this film makes it a little easier to go down. “Spotlight” showed us the stark reality that there was a problem in the institution, and exposing the truth through hard facts and evidence can put us on the path of the right. As Richard Sipe put it, the church is an institution. What happened was the result of flaws in an institution. But a person’s faith, and what they make of it, is their own.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, I implore you to give this film a watch on Netflix before it disappears. I believe that it did deserve that Best Picture award, and morally it has made me a stronger, more informed person.