Spotlight‘s (2015) is a (perhaps the) front-runner for most award shows’ Best Picture prize, which is surprising when you consider the lack of character arcs. Not much changes personality-wise for the news crew of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight group—consisting of a team of four intensely research-oriented journalists—who uncover a massive cover-up of pedophilia and molestation in the Catholic Church. At first, the static nature of the characters seems like a glaring flaw, as though this movie sneaked into Best Picture status despite being an engaging but ultimately flat procedural.
With a closer look, though, Spotlight reveals its true main character: Boston, which undergoes an intense excavation with a complete, satisfying arc. Although the idea of a setting as a character is old hat to anyone who went to elementary school, Spotlight‘s use of the idea is inspired. The ensemble cast can be comprised of distinct characters with moments of depth, without confusion from trying to balance several character arcs. With four major characters, three essential secondary characters, and at least half a dozen integral tertiary characters, Spotlight turns Boston into a chessboard, pitting the Church against journalists.
Yet, already I’ve reduced the complex web of relations that provide a sociological and psychological portrait of one of the United States’ biggest cities. The conflict is certainly between the journalists and the Church, but the immensity of what has been hidden can be traced back to every citizen of that city. Not literally, of course, but the culture that each person participates in allowed for it. The secrecy, the repression, the primacy of the Church over all else: these interact with the sharp cultural divisions to present a city where these actions feel less like a surprise and more like an inevitability. Each person that contributes to that culture is responsible, and even the “good guys” are often directly responsible, whether due to malevolence or negligence. The arc, then, focuses on how the city discovers its problems, engages with them, and then grows.
While Spotlight‘s portrayal of that culture of secrecy can border on relentless, it’s also a masterfully executed thesis. The visual storytelling is a key part of that, which also helps push Spotlight beyond the realm of generic historical dramas. The shot above, for instance, is not from a big moment; it’s simply a scene where people eat at a restaurant. In this transition shot, though, we see the city subtly captured in the frame: the glasses line up like the Church members just outside the window. The symmetry reflects the relationship of even the most mundane or seemingly irrelevant parts of the city to the Church.
Perhaps most perceptive, though, is how Spotlight recognizes the power of outsiders in such a situation. The new editor-in-chief of the Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), is the definition of an outsider—a single, Jewish guy from Florida in a family-centered, Catholic city that “protects its own”—and he ignites the entire investigation. His pressure and confidence force the denizens of Boston to see what has been only barely hidden. Instead of simply arguing that outsiders shake things up, though, Spotlight adds nuance by showing how the perspective of an outsider can push the “insiders” to improve themselves. Sure, tradition is great, but if the tenets of that tradition allow for something like this to happen?
Even though writer/director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer do not hide the extent of the guilt in the situation, they also don’t merely play the blame game. They capture surprising depth for such a hot-button issue, in no small part because they care about the actual people involved. The interviews with victims are honest, brutally so. Listening to them share their stories is brutal, but it’s essential. They are the cost of all of this, the victims whose stories provide the human context and give a face to each number added to the account of suspected priests.
Thus, even the cliches like victim interviews become fresh. This might be Spotlight‘s greatest success: it captures tired topics and techniques with a fresh perspective, an outsider looking in at the genre and finding ways to improve. Even the research montages evade the dreaded “cookie-cutter” adjective because the human factor and presence of the setting are consistently felt. Instead of a plot device that crunches a lot of information down to a couple of minutes, we get to experience what drives half the cast. The sheer catharsis of research replaces the monotony of montage.
This movie didn’t rock my world, and I don’t think it’s a revelation to the medium of film. But it’s a damn good movie, one with depth that would escape the same story in even the best of hands. In a year of bland movies like Carol, it’s nice to see something that actually shakes up the list of award show darlings and provides a reason for existence outside of a golden statuette.