“Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s drama about the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, became an Oscar favorite the moment it made its European and North American debuts in Venice, Telluride and Toronto last year. The film, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber as the reporters and editors involved with the Pulitzer Prize-winning series, possessed all of the markers of a shoo-in for best picture: an all-star cast, an classic aesthetic reminiscent of great ’70s-era thrillers, and a socially important subject.
But, like all front-runners, “Spotlight” started to lose steam with prognosticators late in the race, when challengers such as “The Revenant,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s visually stunning frontier survival story, and “The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s jittery, aggressive portrait of the 2008 financial meltdown, began to earn honors at guild and critics’ awards.
When “The Revenant” wound up earning three Academy Awards — including Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Oscar, Iñárritu’s best-directing Oscar (his second in a row) and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography award (his third in a row) — it felt as if “Spotlight” might have peaked too soon. But, after winning the evening’s first award for best original screenplay, it wound up winning the final one for best picture, as some observers (including this one) maintained it would all along.
Herewith, the arguments against “Spotlight’s” best-picture chances that were overheard during awards season, and the reasons they were wrong:
“It wasn’t cinematic”: Give the “Spotlight” script to eight directors, one filmmaker recently told me, and they would have delivered exactly the same film. “It’s a TV movie,” he cracked, dismissively. It’s true that “Spotlight” had an understated visual style, but to confuse that with lack of aesthetic ambition is a mistake. Working with production designer Stephen H. Carter and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy created a visual language that could be described as “bravura banal,” reproducing the Globe newsroom in all its beige, cluttered glory to convey both verisimilitude and a sense of overwhelming scale.
In a grand tradition refined by such classics as “The Apartment” and “All the President’s Men,” McCarthy pulled the camera back rather than coming in for TV-friendly close-ups, bringing viewers into the space inhabited by “Spotlight’s” protagonists, underlining their struggles against vast, unchecked institutional power. The result was a motion picture every bit as involving and vibrant as “The Revenant’s” histrionics or “The Big Short’s” tics and mannerisms; indeed, “Spotlight” was all the more dynamic for being so quiet and self-assured.
“It was boring”: A rule of thumb has taken hold in the film industry that a movie has to grab the viewer by the throat in the first five minutes, then keep squeezing until a suitably explosive denouement. “Spotlight” puts the lie to that more-is-more ethos: Admittedly, it starts slowly, but that establishes the film’s tone, atmosphere and credibility and gives the audience crucial time to understand the story and the stakes.
McCarthy and his co-screenwriter, Josh Singer, spent months meticulously researching the Globe’s investigation, a level of exactitude that infused the entire production, drawing viewers’ eyes and ears to details that immersed them in a human drama with the edgy suspense of a thriller, but without resorting to cloak-and-dagger heroics or sensationalism. There’s not one ounce of fat on the bone, nor an instance of the filmmakers putting undue spin on the ball. Far from boring, “Spotlight” was lean, taut and urgently propulsive.
“There were no big moments”: Rosalind Russell famously said, “You know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happy.” The subversive genius of “Spotlight” is that it doesn’t contain any “movie moments” in the conventional sense. There’s one scene of Mark Ruffalo’s character blowing up at his editors for their decision to hold a story. But that emotional outburst is a brief exception to a rule that “Spotlight” obeys faithfully, constantly undercutting cheap sentiment and obviousness in favor of understatement, allusion and oblique suggestion.
Two examples: when the devout grandmother of reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) asks for a glass of water while reading the Globe’s exposé, and when Ruffalo watches as a lawyer played by Stanley Tucci meets with yet another young victim of abuse. Those aren’t big moments, it’s true: They’re great ones.
“Where was the guy jumping his horse off a cliff and eating a bison liver?”: A subset of the “no big moments” argument is the Great Man Theory of filmmaking, wherein movies are simply backdrops for larger-than-life star turns and awards-worthy performances (hey, it worked for Leo!). “Spotlight” once again inverts the norm, presenting viewers with the rare spectacle of name actors submerging their egos, ceding center stage and genuinely working together as a unified whole to tell the story of a group effort, rather than individual heroics.
In this way, “Spotlight” actually managed to surpass its most obvious antecedent, “All the President’s Men,” portraying journalistic work as the tedious daily grind that it is, but without two huge movie stars using their charisma to carry the film, or enticing episodes in shadowy garages. What’s more, the film honestly confronts the Globe’s own failures in reporting on the sex abuse scandal in years past. Rather than perpetuating the mythology of the intrepid reporter, “Spotlight” both de-glamorizes the profession and restores a simple sense of collective mission and integrity.
“It only appeals to journalists”: There’s no doubt that “Spotlight” has a special place in the hearts of working reporters and editors: No ink-stained wretch — or former one — can fail to appreciate the painstaking care that McCarthy and Singer went to in order to honor a calling in which clip files attain the patina of a holy grail. But “Spotlight” went further and became more than just a journalistic procedural. Thanks to McCarthy’s unerring sense of proportion, as well as his compassion, what in other hands might have been a polemic or manipulative melodrama turned out to be a sobering portrait of betrayal, tenacity and grief.
Movies are visual experiences, as well as aural and intellectual ones. But at their most powerful, they’re deeply emotional. “Spotlight” brought an important issue to light with strong characters and adroit storytelling — but never at the expense of the aching human loss at its center.