Best Picture 2016: Spotlight Review

I SAW SPOTLIGHT in a mostly empty cinema, and while I wish more people had seen it, I cant exactly blame them for choosing not to. Spotlight is a good film, perhaps even a great one, but when people are given the choose between spending their Friday evening watching Deadpool or a movie about a child abuse scandal choosing the former is understandable.

Spotlight posterIf anything works against the film it’s the heaviness of its subject matter, and while heavy films need to be made and can still be enjoyable, the enjoyment comes from a different source than the enjoyment one has watching lighter, action-based fare.

Spotlight follows an independent investigative journalism team (named Spotlight) at The Boston Globe who, following the arrival of a new editor, find their attentions focused on investigating the possible involvement of the local cardinal in covering up incidents of child abuse and moving those priests accused of such acts from parish to parish rather than exposing them to any disciplinary procedure and arguably being complicit in the recurrence of abuse.

While this topic is certainly emotionally heavy, and Spotlight has some very emotionally impactful moments, it seems to be more interested in examining a number of issues surrounding the scandal which are all emotional in their own way, rather than dwelling on anyone one of them. The exploration of bureaucracy is frustrating, the exploration of the realities of the journalism business are somewhat saddening and the interviews with survivors of abuse are heartbreaking and the descriptions of abuse are disgusting. Rather than trying to deliver strongly on one particular emotion spotlight weaves a rich tapestry addressing a number of themes and issues.

Because of this variety of themes Spotlight can be fairly dense, but it never becomes unmanageable. However, due to the nature of the subject matter most of the “action” of the film is people, mostly men, talking in rooms. Because of this it can feel a little repetitive, and while efforts are made to add some visual variety, the whole thing begins to take on the feeling of a film that one must wait for and to some degree endure (although its not unpleasant) rather than being deeply engrossed.

A lot of desk talk and meeting in rooms is the order of the day with Spotlight, but the tension developed between the main characters (played by McAdams, Keaton and Ruffalo above) carries it through to an even tenser conclusion

A lot of desk talk and meeting in rooms is the order of the day with Spotlight, but the tension developed between the main characters (played by McAdams, Keaton and Ruffalo above) carries it through to an even tenser conclusion.

Time does not fly when watching Spotlight, and there are moments when one feels that one must sit through the experience with the hope of being enriched at the end. I feel this is the films one weakness; that it’s pacing and script seem to have a pacing problem. It’s one which prompts me, on some level, to wonder if it may be intentional. This is because waiting, while part of the experience, is also happening on screen.

Towards the beginning a court case begins in order to obtain some sealed documents, which lasts almost the entire length of the film. As such while the audience feels they are waiting, so are the characters on screen, and while they spend the time discovering new details and enriching their picture of what happened and how the community behaves, so does the audience. Because of this I have to wonder if this film suffers a pacing problem or is, in the most understated way possible, a work of secret genius.

In comparison to the other major “based on a true story” film this season, The Big Short, this film seems much more traditional. It is slower paced, and is in many places much more watchable, and while The Big Short had some moments which didn’t seem well composed, it had an energy which Spotlight seems to lack.

So should you see Spotlight? It ultimately depends on what you like. Spotlight can be a little slow, but a deeply interesting and rich depiction of true events which provides commentary on everything from community politics to the nature of the legal system. It’s certainly not an action film, but if interesting depictions of real events are even vaguely of interest to you its certainly worth a watch.