So this has been a tough one. In general, a movie review, not to mention the reviewer, has to separate the subject matter of the film from the performances of the actors and the general tone, look, and feel of the movie. Spotlight was difficult because, as I’ll mention later, this made me really sick to my stomach and broke my heart. Well, I’ll go ahead and define a few things and then do my best keep it light and to give a review this film based on the entertainment value and not the wretched subject matter.
First things first. I want everyone to know the difference between “Inspired by a True Story/Events” and “Based on a True Story”. Anything that is “Inspired by” a person, place, or event typically leans more on the fictitious side. The screenwriter(s) or director might have gotten something right from the truth, but that could be something as simple as the names of the people involved, but most take a lot of liberties with the story. While Argo was “Inspired by True Events” Ben Affleck largely downplayed how the Canadians did most of the work and the whole tense end sequence was pure fiction.
Now we get to things “Based on a True Story/Event”. This typically swings completely the other way than “Inspired By” films. Most of the material is not fictionalized, but sometimes names, places, length of time the event occurred in, etc. One of the best examples is 127 Hours. If you’ve seen that film, then you know you can go ahead and ask the crazy bastard who actually sawed his arm off and then went back for more adventuring.
Now that we have cleared up some common misconceptions, let me tell you where Spotlight falls in this spectrum. When you go back up and look at the movie poster at the beginning of the review, you’ll see the following phrase: “The true story behind the scandal that shook the world.” Notice there are no “Inspired By” or even “Based On” in that byline. Spotlight goes one above the other movies we’ve talked about. This is a true story. The director, Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer both have the unenviable job of bringing this tale of molestation, corruption, and investigation to the silver screen. Now that we know that this is pretty much biographical, let’s dig into the film.
Again, trying to separate the subject matter from the film, that’s the goal but unfortunately Spotlight really focuses on two things that bug the hell out of me: child molestation and organized religion. Last week on Wednesday Wars we celebrated Veterans, and I was explicit in that most of the post was satire. I didn’t bring my personal bias or thoughts about war and soldiers in general. However, in this case, I will not hid my thoughts on the matter. Like I said in the title, I believe most (if not all) organized religions are crooked and have no place in the modern world. On top of that, and here is where my confirmation bias comes into play, I have absolutely no trouble with believing that the Catholic church is a sordid and dangerous institution. That’s about all I’m going to say on the subject matter.
Spotlight is an investigative team from the Boston Globe who take on large cases and brought to light an absolutely abhorrent story of Catholic priests molesting young boys and girls in the city of Boston. Their 2002 article then spurred a look at the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal’s. Tom McCarthy, the director, has spent more time in front of the camera than behind it, but you can easily feel the tension in his style. This is something he cares about. Every single frame depicts a horrifying look into one of the oldest institutions in the World and McCarthy makes sure you feel that disgust. Whether it’s from the decidedly grey tint to the cinematography or the extremely heated dialogue written, it’s very apparent that something is seriously wrong here. He absolutely excels at making you feel uncomfortable, as you should, and for a film to elicit emotions like that is really what it’s all about. Of course we love the light-hearted comedies and action films, but sometimes, when you see a film like Spotlight, you’re reminded why the moving pictures are there at all: they exist to move you.
While the discomfort in the theater was absolutely palpable in the air, the ante was upped even from there with the unbelievable cast they put together. I’ll list the major people here, but everyone involved in this production, especially the actors portraying the victims, were involved in a way that you don’t see everyday. It’s as if they understood the gravity of the subject matter and that their acting and every word of dialog would somehow stop this sort of abuse by supposedly trusted individuals. As I said, let me toss out the main cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci. I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever written the names of such talent in one review.
The three that I really want to showcase (just couldn’t use the word “Spotlight” there) are Ruffalo, Keaton, and Tucci. First off, it’s really good to see Michael Keaton taking meaty roles recently. Last year’s critical darling, Birdman, was the first time I saw his acting chops really get challenged since the ’89 Batman.
Anyway, Keaton succeeds as the editor of the Spotlight team by not only being their bosses, but he really digs into the trenches with them on this story. I sincerely hope the real Walter Robinson treated his employees the way Keaton gelled with the rest of the cast.
Stanley Tucci usually plays the creepiest of characters, have you seen The Lovely Bones? If not, and you’re a parent, I recommend you don’t. You’ll be convinced Tucci is outside of your house every night. As if one Boogeyman wasn’t enough, Hollywood had to cast Tucci in roles that he’s way too good at. However, in Spotlight, he portrays the attorney that is attempting to bring the criminals to justice. Yes, these people are the worst kind of criminals. And this is going to be really controversial, but at least murderers end their victims’ lives. Anyone who has been molested, raped, physically abused, etc. can attest that at some point you feel you’d rather be dead than live the life laid out in front of you. So, Tucci brings in victims, discusses cases, and the whole time I don’t know how he doesn’t throw up.
In my opinion, the true star of the film is Mark Ruffalo. I love him as The Hulk, but this was a much different role.
Ruffalo very much represents the audience in this film. Not only does he have some of the toughest scenes (many with Tucci), but he handles most of the legwork of the film. The sheer anger and disgust that is put on display with not only his words, but his mannerisms. There are several shots he is in that his face clearly depicts what I hope everyone who watches this film feels: revulsion. I would have never believed he was capable of this range, but he pulls it off, and again, maybe it’s due to how important the investigation that the real Spotlight team did.
There is no good way to end this review. We all know what happened and the fallout. Much of it was covered up as best as it could be by the church, but the World was made aware of a serious systemic problem in their ranks. I didn’t do a good job of separating myself from the subject matter and the film, but hopefully what you read conveyed my own anger and revulsion to this issue. That’s something that just can’t be taken lightly.
Didn’t read my fancy words, here is the short version:
Everyone involved in making this movie did two things: they made it entertaining and they made you feel disgust and anger. This film will move you. It’s opening in wide release today, so I recommend you go take a look. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you can get past the truly horrific nature at the core of this film, you’ll find actors who care a great deal, a good investigative story, and writing/dialogue that should, and will, make you sick. For me, it confirmed my beliefs. Will it do the same for you, or will it challenge them?