You know how there’s a certain type of movie that gets made every year that’s very clearly designed to garner awards buzz because it’s about a Very Important Subject and it features at least one scene for each of the main cast members where they get to Emote About The Very Important Subject?
Spotlight is one of those movies.
It’s a movie about the Boston Globe‘s 2001 in depth investigation of the massive cover up the Catholic Church has perpetuated for decades of its significant population of priests who sexually abuse children. That’s absolutely a Very Important Subject, and two of the leads, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, get scenes where they get to Emote About The Very Important Subject. It has Oscar Bait written all over it, and while sometimes you can deride such movies as hewing close to a specific formula that easily elicits specific audience feels in a cheap grab at award recognition, you also have to recognize that there are good examples of the formula done right.
Spotlight is one of those movies.
The subject matter would make it easy to characterize the team of investigators as brave rebels working to uncover a story that’s been hidden by communal conspiracy. Boston’s characterized as a very Catholic place, and the working class families who live there are portrayed as often stuck in a complicated relationship with the Church where it’s an important pillar of support that they want to defend while also acknowledging the way it preys on victims. Much of the movie is occupied with interviews with victims that highlight how community pressure keeps many people from reporting despite the immense betrayal they’ve experienced. Though none of the reporters are devout Catholics, they also figure into this system in ways that demonstrate just how much power the Church has in the community (the most salient example comes from Robby, played by Michael Keaton, who is tenacious in working his angle of the story precisely because many years previously he overlooked a major tip that could have put the paper onto the cover up much earlier; coupled with a late scene showing a family where two children were abused only two weeks before the story is published, the point that every moment of delay in uncovering the truth of this situation, whether intentional or not, carries heavy costs for the complicit community). It’s a nuanced approach to the conflict in this movie, and it helps avoid the storytelling pitfall of the untarnished heroes.
On the subject of actors Emoting About The Very Important Subject, it’s fair to say that there are a couple scenes built around this idea, but the vast majority of the movie is built around quiet scenes where the characters discuss the cover up dispassionately and listen to victims’ stories with small signs of sympathy (there are very few moments where the reporters are simply overcome with sadness or anger at the plight of the victims; more often it’s a few encouraging words accompanied by an intense focus on taking notes about what they’re hearing). The bits of anger and worry mostly come in private. Otherwise, these are performances that I think of as belonging to the Patrick Stewart Eating a Sandwich category; that is, they’re like this scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard tells a story about his youth, and Patrick Stewart sells it with understatement.
I have to note Mark Ruffalo’s performance in particular here; he plays Mike Rezendes, who does a lot of the work interviewing major sources and writing the final article. Ruffalo’s performance is notable to me because it’s a far departure from the way he acts in the Avengers movies as Bruce Banner (of course, that’s an action movie series, so there’s a lot more spectacle to pull from nuanced performances), and a lot of the mannerisms he adopts (which I’m assuming the actual Rezendes possesses) remind me strongly of things that I’ve seen old students do. It’s more a personal bit of nostalgia because it evokes good memories for me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think the performance is phenomenal.
Overall, Spotlight is a really great example of its genre. The content can be hard to stomach (there’s much frank discussion of sexual abuse of children), but if you’re not uncomfortable with that, this is a movie that’s well worth seeing.