In what could be considered a mild surprise, Spotlight, a powerful film about The Boston Globe exposing years of sexual abuse by priests and the subsequent cover up by the Catholic Church took home the award for Best Picture of the year. I say it was a surprise because most indications pointed to The Revenant winning, which seemed especially likely once Leonardo DiCaprio unsurprisingly won his first Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Alejandro Inarrito won Best Director, becoming the third director in the history of the Academy to win that prestigious award two years in a row. So as I watched the ceremony I was relatively certain that further Oscar history would be made by the same director winning consecutive Best Pictures for the first time ever, as well as DiCaprio entering into the Three-Timers club by starring in a third Best Picture winner. However a different kind of Oscar history was made when Michael Keaton became the fourth actor to star in back-to-back Best Picture winners with Spotlight claiming the top prize.
While Star Wars: The Force Awakens was my favorite movie of the year, Spotlight was my favorite of the Best Picture nominees for a few reasons. First off, it had a great screenplay, which was confirmed by the other Oscar that it won for Best Original Screenplay. There are a couple of aspects of the screenplay that I thought were particularly strong, the most important being how well it was structured while also having the structure so seamlessly written into the screenplay that it was difficult to see it. I’ve heard many writers lament the fact that they have to write their screenplays in three acts and how restrictive that is to their creativity. Well, here’s a screenplay that’s actually written in four acts, and the plot points happen so subtly that you don’t notice them, and yet the story clearly changes direction each time. That’s because those plot points are not only changing the direction of the story, but they’re natural components of the story, so as the viewer, you don’t necessarily notice when the adventure begins or when the stakes are raised or when they have their crisis because you’re so engrossed in the story that you’re just experiencing it.
And yet, here it is. The adventure begins when the Spotlight team starts investigating the Church. The stakes are raised when the new editor of the Boston Globe Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) instructs the Spotlight team to not only focus on the priests, but also the system. The crisis occurs when it seems like they have everything that they need to implicate Cardinal Bernard Law of covering up these abuses, but team leader Walter “Robby” Robertson (Keaton) can’t go with it yet because there isn’t enough to show the systemic issues throughout the institution, causing reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to lose his temper, nearly breaking up the team. That moment sends us into the final act where the team does make that connection that leads us to the climax of releasing the story and exposing the Church.
The other aspect of this film that I believe helped carry it to win Best Picture is the acting. Robbie is the main character of the story, but it’s largely an ensemble cast with great performances not only by Keaton and Schreiber and Ruffalo, but also by Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci, among many others. All of them give stellar performances, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. With a dearth of action and little in the way of special effects or other gimmicks to the film making, a film like Spotlight needs to have those types of stellar performances from its actors to carry it. Really, this movie is somewhat of a throwback if you think about it in that it completely relies on quality storytelling and superb acting for its entertainment value, and it delivers on both counts.
However the most important aspect of this film, and I think what ultimately set Spotlight apart from the other films that were nominated this year was the emotional impact that it punched. All of the other films that were nominated for 2015 were all fine films in their own rights and did what they set out to do very well, but I don’t think any of them, with the possible exception of Brooklyn, carried the level of emotion that Spotlight did. Naturally there is going to be an emotional connection to a group of heroes that are trying to protect innocent children as well as provide justice to those who’s innocence was lost, but the way the story was crafted and the way the dramatic arc was developed helped to increase the emotional impact. This starts out as an issue that no one wants to confront except for Baron, who is an outsider to the group. He provides them with the inciting incident to investigate the Church, and each member of the group approaches the assignment with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The emotion of the film sets in when they start interviewing victims and hearing their stories and experiencing their feelings of helplessness when one of the most powerful institutions in the world was silencing them. The emotional impact increases as they discover the breadth of to problem and just how deep and wide it goes. Finally we share a sympathetic moment with Robbie when he confesses that he received information nearly a decade ago that could have helped to expose this crisis years earlier.
What makes that last point so important is that the “system” if you will is the antagonist of this story. There isn’t just on central villain who is preventing them from writing the story. Rather, it is the entire corrupt system of local business, political and law enforcement officials who essentially enabled this behavior by looking the other way for decades. When Robbie confesses that he buried a potentially explosive story on this topic years ago on the back page of the Metro section of the Globe, he can’t help but feel as though he’s a part of the very system that he’s been trying to expose for the past year. This is an especially powerful moment as the others on his team try and convince him that there was no way that he could have known the depth of the issue, especially Ben Bradlee, Jr. (Slattery), Robbie’s supervisor, who probably feels some of the same guilt, but won’t allow himself to admit it as he’s so loaded up with denial. However, Robbie calmly points out that all of the signs were there, even then. They had all of the pieces that they needed, but no one was willing to put them together. Only Baron, the outsider, is able to assure them that no matter what happened in the past, what they’re doing now is making up for it in a big way. That catharsis is another subtle, yet powerful storytelling component that allows Robbie to complete his character arc from a guilt-ridden, self-righteous crusader to a humble man who has brought justice to an unjust place.
The other impressive thing that this film accomplished was that it was able to create tension as well as obstacles for the main characters without having one single, strong antagonist. Normally I am in favor of a story having a central antagonist who is in a position of strength with the ability and desire to keep the hero from getting what he or she wants or needs acting as the main villain in a story. What the filmmakers of Spotlight did was take many elements of the city of Boston and the institution of the Catholic Church, and turn it into one giant “system” that certainly had the power and the desire to prevent Robbie and the others from obtaining the facts that they need to run the story.
As previously mentioned, the villain in this film is the system. What the Spotlight team is trying to take down is the system. That means that not only are they trying to expose Cardinal Law, but they’re also going after all of the enablers who looked the other way while all of this has been going on. This includes many people who are friends with Robbie and have known him for years. Boston is a provincial city, and the locals take great pride in being from there, as well as the fact that their bloodlines go back literally hundreds of years in that town. That attitude, and what Robbie was going up against, was summed up perfectly when Robbie has a drink with Pete Conley, who tells him that he’ll ruin his own reputation, as well as that of the Boston Globe if he tries to destroy the Church over “a few bad apples”. When he sees he’s getting nowhere with Robbie, he points out that Baron made him run with this story, and that Baron will someday just move on, like he did from New York and from Miami. He then asks Robbie, “Where are you going to go?” That provincialism, denial and blind loyalty to the Church all combine to create this corrupt system that acts as the villain in the story, and it works very well.
I believe that Spotlight is a film that is more than the sum of its parts. I realize that I’ve just spent 1500 words espousing how well all of the various parts of the story were crafted, and they were indeed crafted very well. However, the parts by themselves wouldn’t necessarily create a film that would have the scope of a Best Picture winner. The subtlety of the film making keep this from feeling like it’s on the same level as films like Birdman, 12 Years a Slave or Argo. That is until you take a closer looks and realize that those films, while all excellent, told their stories in a different way. There was nothing subtle about the style of storytelling in those films. They were all in your face and intense.With Spotlight, it took time to peel back the layers of the story. It was complex and things were revealed to us over time. Even though the stakes might not have seemed as high at the outset as they were in those other films, they end up being just as high, but with much more sinister undertones. It’s only after all of the parts come together so seamlessly that this film reaches its greatness.
Did the Academy get it right?
Yes, I believe they did. This was a controversial year, as the lack of racial diversity in the nominations took center stage and in the period leading up to the ceremony overshadowed the the films that were nominated. Certainly films like Creed, Straight Outta Compton and Concussion deserved more Oscar love than they received, and a strong case could be made for any or all of those films being at least nominated for Best Picture. I don’t think any of them were better than Spotlight, but they at least deserved to be a part of the conversation. As did, in my opinion, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m not sure why the Academy didn’t see fit to at least nominate it for Best Picture, considering the film’s overwhelming popularity, but the Star Wars franchise has never received much love from the Academy, so this year was really no different. As for the films that were nominated, I actually liked all of them, and loved a couple. The elephant (or bear) in the room is The Revenant. I liked it, but didn’t love it. I thought DiCaprio was great in it, and I felt that Tom Hardy was robbed, because his stellar performance deserved the Best Supporting Actor award. It was a beautiful film, but I had some serious plausibility issues with it, and overall I just didn’t have the emotional connection with the story and characters that I want in a Best Picture winner. I did get that connection in Bridge of Spies, which I loved just a tick less than Spotlight. I felt it was a compelling and engaging story that had me riveted from the beginning. I also loved Mad Max: Fury Road for the roller coaster ride it took us on. If Mad Max was the second most entertaining film of the year, then The Martian was 3rd. It was a fun film with dazzling special effects that was like an entertaining science lesson. It also had some of the most compelling and interesting characters of the year, and they brought performances that rivaled those of Spotlight. It was one of the three most entertaining films of the year, and certainly deserved to be recognized. I liked The Big Short a lot, and wouldn’t have been surprised if it had won. It took a very serious crisis and turned it into an entertaining romp without losing the gravity of the crisis. Room was great and intense, and also very much deserved its nomination. I liked Brooklyn, but didn’t love it. If there’s one film that didn’t deserve it’s nomination, this was probably the one. It took about half the film for the story to start to get really compelling. Once it got going it was terrific, but I can’t look at it as any more than half of a great film. With all of that said, it’s my opinion that Spotlight was the most complete film of the year. Its story was the best crafted, the acting was stronger and the stakes were as high or higher than the other films. It might not be one of the greatest winners in Oscar history, but it was the greatest film of 2015.