It’s not too hard to find the year’s best picture in theaters immediately after it wins the award. That’s where we were yesterday, in part because Tuesday means cheap date night: only $5.75 a ticket all day. If nothing else a Best Picture award suggests the movie is unlikely to be a loser. Spotlight won the award this year, against a host of other worthy contenders and my personal favorite of the bunch (of those I’ve seen), Mad Max: Fury Road. But first, a little rant.
Can anyone recall a Best Picture that was not released near the end of the year? I can’t. Why is this? It’s unclear to me but it is unfair. My personal suspicion is that those in the Academy who have voting privileges suffer from long term memory loss. But they do remember what they have seen recently, which is why it seems these pictures always seem to win in the end. Recognizing the reality the studios probably deliberately hold what they think is their best stuff for the end of the year. At least Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated even though it was outside of the cycle as was The Martian.
Anyhow, I set my expectations high for Best Picture, which left me leaving the theater after seeing Spotlight somewhat disappointed. It’s obviously not a bad movie. If you’ve seen All the President’s Men forty years earlier, you’ll know the plot. In this case the bad guy is not the President of the United States, but the entire Roman Catholic Church. Spotlight is the story of a group of Boston Globe reporters who broke the sex abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church, but more specifically within the Boston archdiocese. Boston though was just the tip of this iceberg, actually the tip of the tip. The excitement, such as it is in this movie, is from understanding the magnitude of the abuse, as it becomes clear at the end of the movie. It also comes from understanding why these crimes are so horrendous.
So it’s an interesting story full of twists and turns as you would expect but like All the President’s Men you know how it’s going to end up. The priests mess up a lot of kids, but no one actually dies, except possibly their souls. There’s not even a car chase. What comprises an exciting moment is definitely relative, but there is one near the climax as you would expect when one of the reporters (Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo) runs to the courthouse to get copies of some recently unsealed documents before the competition does. You take what you can get.
What you get is certainly good acting but nothing hugely out of the ordinary. Spotlight is an investigative team at the Globe overseen by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby’s two reporters Sacha (Rachel McAdams) and Mike do most of the tedious grunt work. Fortunately they are well supported by the Globe’s staff, which is undergoing some reorganization. The big change is the new executive editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who basically gives the Spotlight crew their marching orders. At first it’s unclear how this new fancy pants editor from Florida will do in cold and Catholic Boston, but he ends up fitting in pretty well with these Boston-bred reporters. This includes in their managerial chain Ben Bradley Jr. (yes, son of the editor featured in All the President’s Men) played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.
There is no Deep Throat or dramatic scenes in parking garages in this movie. Much of the action takes place on doorsteps or in cafes where the reporters interview attorneys and abused victims. They form a tight and driven ensemble but soon sense a stonewall, which is the Catholic Church, which is deftly defending itself from potential legal action through a lot of cash payments, victim intimidation and legal tricks.
The best parts of the movie are the interviews with the abuse victims. Even if you are tuned into the scale of the church’s cover up, it still feels astounding when reporters fully uncover just how large of a cover up this is. Mostly the team succeeds through tenacity and wearing out lots of shoe leather.
The grubby feeling of the Boston Globe is well done, as are the cubicles stacked with papers where the reporters work. The makeup is minimal in this movie. Michael Keaton (whose Bird Man movie last year won Best Picture) is not aging well; in fact he looks much older than he is. Kudos perhaps to the actors for not caring. Ruffalo too looks incredibly ordinary and no Bruce Banner. McAdams was hard to recognize under all that frosted blonde hair. All held back much of their acting prowess, which was probably a good choice on the director’s part because it made the movie feel more plausible. Still, you pretty much get the movie you expect. I just did not get a movie that felt to me like it deserved to be in the Best Picture category.
3.2 out of four-points.