Part four of the “Chasing Oscar” series: putting the spotlight on the Best Picture frontrunner.
A couple of months ago, Vulture reported that the cast of Oscar frontrunner Spotlight weren’t submitting themselves in the Lead acting categories; they would only compete as supporting players. In a season rampant with “category fraud” accusations (see Alicia Vikander’s in The Danish Girl or Rooney Mara in Carol), there are a few ways to read this choice.
There is the cynical, where you believe the film’s robustly talented cast is hoping to garner sympathy, and sweep the whole ceremony, by appearing to set aside their own vanity and ambitions. You can also believe that the acting ensemble of Spotlight actually sees themselves as such, an ensemble with no clear leader among them. I would go with the latter, except that there is a lead actor in this story, and I’m not talking about Michael Keaton. The real lead of Spotlight is the horrifying open secret of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
Spotlight follows the real-life titular team of Boston Globe journalists (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) working to uncover the truth behind child molestation claims against a local priest, and whether the city’s Cardinal was aware of the abuse. Pushed on them by a brand-new newspaper owner (Liev Schreiber), the team isn’t particularly interested in the story, initially labeling it as a disproven nugget of accusation against a well-respected Cardinal. Their cursory research quickly reveals that it is much, much more than that. The abuse is wide-ranging and systemic.
Every minute that passes uncovers more horrifying truth: the number of victims, the number of perpetrators, the attempts by local Church officials to bury it, and even the Globe’s previous ignorance of evidence sent directly to them. The scope of the abuse is harrowing, as is the complexity of the network supporting it. The Spotlight team receives pushback from several people in their mission to expose the truth, all of them coded in friendly advice and references to “good people”. As Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) puts it, in one of the film’s best lines, “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”.
Child abuse, especially associated with religion, is a very difficult topic, but Spotlight doesn’t shy away from the horror. The mountain of evidence and accounts that the team pores over is laid out in plain sight, painstakingly analyzed and connected to other pieces of this scandal. Director Tom McCarthy mimics the pace of an old-school newsroom, moving briskly through his script but allowing important moments the room to breathe, like the devastating stories of three grown male victims of priest abuse. One of the victims, the founder of a support group, shares his story and powerful insights into the nature of abuse in the Church, like how abuse doesn’t discriminate by gender and that poorer families are especially vulnerable. He become loud and passionate, but the reporters, and the film, don’t waver. The speed helps in maintaining its restraint; there is no time to break down or fall apart; the story is too important and it must be told in full.
That is the case that Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) makes when he is confronted by Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo) about not pushing the story out sooner. Here, Ruffalo is allowed the loudest, most passionate moment in the whole film, screaming in what must be catharsis after doggedly chasing down lawyers, victims, and stacks of locked files for months. Keaton responds to the outburst with a cutting, cool “are you done?”, as much to the audience as to Ruffalo. Both actors are excellent in the film, and Ruffalo’s nomination is understandable, but I can’t help but feel like Michael Keaton was cheated out of another nomination (he was nominated last year for his excellent performance in Birdman).
I was pleasantly surprised to see Rachel McAdams land in the Best Supporting Actress category for her steely but sensitive portrayal of Sacha Pfeiffer. She and the rest of the cast masterfully convey the internal effects of the investigation: the disgust, the shock, the guilt of not reporting the story sooner. It’s remarkable just how un-showy their performances are, especially with a subject that calls for, under lesser direction and writing, histrionics and showboating. Instead, the cast and even the script written by McCarthy and Josh Singer cede their “spotlight” to the horrors hidden within the corners of the Boston diocese, allowing its story to be told in frank, disturbing terms.
Like fellow Best Picture nominee Brooklyn, Spotlight is a quieter affair. They two films differs in the reactions they draw. Brooklyn makes you feel, intensely. Spotlight makes you think, about the culture of silence, the power of the press, and their responsibility to tell the truth, no matter how ugly it is. My inclination is to go with the more emotional for Best Picture, but Spotlight is an excellent film in every conceivable way. Its front-runner status is deserved.
Room may be one of the most difficult films I see this year, but it’s coming up next in the series, along with The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Big Short. Please share and leave your comments and thoughts! Keep the convo going! Until next time! – BL