One of the best compliments I can pay any artistic production – film, television, theater, etc. – is to say that I did not once check the time while consuming said artistic production.
When the screen went dark and the concluding text started to appear on the screen, I was startled and disappointed to find that SPOTLIGHT was already over.
The Best Picture winners in recent years have been easily recognizable as technically strong, stand-out productions, but SPOTLIGHT is the first one in a long while that I have found so engrossing on every level. I recognize the value of BIRDMAN and TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, but it’s really not since THE ARTIST and THE KING’S SPEECH that I could see myself raving about a winning film.
SPOTLIGHT doesn’t explode on the screen so much as it smolders, growing hotter and hotter as the story unfolds. Every performance is tightly wound, from Liev Schreiber’s reticence as editor-in-chief Marty Baron to the face of Eileen Padua, who plays Rachel McAdams’ character’s grandmother, as she reads the final story in the paper.
One of the things I loved about it was the way the main characters, the Spotlight crew, were not shown as righteous crusaders, but as flawed and passionate journalists who believe that this kind of truth should be spoken aloud and in public. Though they all believe fully in what they are doing regarding the Church, they each lose something along the way. Sacha (Rachel McAdams) can no longer bring herself even to accompany her grandmother to church because she gets so angry when she thinks of the abuse survivors she’s interviewed. Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) discovers during research that a priest “treatment center” is a block or two away from his house and becomes tortured by the idea of them being so near to neighborhood children. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a lapsed Catholic, always thought he would return to the Church someday, but now cannot. And Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton, in a performance I much prefer to the one in BIRDMAN) is dealt a double blow by discovering one of the priests in question was a teacher at his high school, and then realizing that all the pieces of the story were already at the Globe and had crossed his desk eight years earlier, but he hadn’t put it all together.
This film walks a delicate line between the hopeful tone of knowing the story dealt a blow to institutional corruption and the despair of realizing the story uncovered by the Spotlight team is a single piece of a much larger picture. Indeed, as Rezendes goes to the office of the lawyer who has helped tremendously with the story to hand-deliver a copy of the paper, he sees an interview room with three children in it, and the lawyer tells him that two were abused in a nearby parish. The satisfaction disappears from Rezendes’ face as he sees this proof that little has yet changed. Indeed, the film ends with text briefly describing the immediate impact of Spotlight’s nearly 600 stories on the subject of child sexual abuse by priests and friars in Boston over the course of 2002, and follows that with a truly disturbing list of other places in the world where major priestly abuse stories have come to light. It takes four screens of double columns to show the entire list.
SPOTLIGHT is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, without a weak spot that I can determine. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly urge you to do so.