This review is spoiler-free.
Spotlight is the story of how journalists at the Spotlight newspaper in Boston exposed child abuse in the Catholic Church at the turn of the century. It desperately wants to be All The President’s Men, but just isn’t good enough. Ben Bradley Jr. is a character in this film. His father, Ben Bradley, was editor of The Washington Post when they broke the story of the Watergate break-in that ultimately brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end. Spotlight also tries to get into the nuts and bolts of what a day in the life of a newspaper is actually like. From all the staff meetings and editorial decisions that have to be taken to the subsequent journalistic legwork on the street, it’s structurally identical to All The President’s Men. (This movie is set in 2001 and it is strange how none of the information the journalists need is gleaned from the internet. It all comes from books, paper files or knocking on doors. There’s another deliberate attempt to ape President’s Men. Spotting something on a computer screen is nowhere near as dramatic as a shock face-to-face revelation with actors.)
The Spotlight team comprises Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams among others. Keaton has already played a newspaper man in 1994’s The Paper. There were some key early acting beats that Keaton fluffed, I thought (that comic bouncy walk of his is all wrong for this movie), but his performance gets better as the movie goes on. Maybe he’s miscast in this and someone with more gravitas might have been better.
The film kicks off with some forced comic relief (no one in the cinema laughed, that’s flawed writing) as the makers know there are a litany of depressing abuse stories ahead and try to lighten the load for the audience. It was similar to Suffragette in that way.
There are further problems with the script. At one point, Mark Ruffalo even yells “We gotta nail these scumbags!” in one of many righteous rants from various characters in the film. That’s a cliché straight out of every cop movie you’ve ever seen. They don’t need to overdo convincing an audience that child abuse is wrong by judging their characters like that. “I was just doin’ my job!” is another chestnut, the equivalent of a Holocaust movie where a former Nazi says they were only following orders (the parallels are deliberate and subtle as a sledgehammer. The character that says that line is Spotlight’s equivalent of the informant Deep Throat from President’s Men, thankfully there are no references to Deep Throat in this as it would have been entirely inappropriate given the sensitive subject matter.) There’s another cliché recycled from Thrillersville later on when there’s a race-against-time to get a crucial source to confirm vital information. Guess what happens.
The church administrators are all soulless, dead-eyed politicians using every trick in the book (guilt trips, threats, intimidation and the law itself) to keep the truth of clerical abuse from being made public. It’s a simplistic black-and-white good vs evil story with some unforgivable hackneyed moments in it. (Even the title plays into black-and-white simplicity, with the crusading journalists shining a spotlight on the darkness of the Catholic Church’s sins. The journalists are such martyrs that they even injure themselves putting on their dishwashers due to the stress of the investigation) Great movies play around in the grey areas more, as that’s where realism lies. The acting, writing and direction in Spotlight are okay, nothing remarkable.
You could sense the movie’s lack of buzz at the announcement of the Oscar nominations recently. Every time Spotlight got one, there was silence. It does feel like it was conceived as worthy Oscar-bait and, as such, it follows the awards rulebook to the letter.
Spotlight is a good film striving for greatness that’s beyond its reach.
Perhaps Spotlight’s best moment comes when it fades to a black screen at the end and lists the names of all the places where abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy have come to light around the world. The screen is filled with them page after page after page. That is truly chilling. Images speak louder than words.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.