Spotlight film won’t reach mainstream

by | Dec 11, 2015 | Opinion

For a film that has high ambitions in terms of contextual theme, Spotlight does not satisfy. (Photo: Creative Commons/Deepak Kumar)

For a film that has high ambitions in terms of contextual theme, Spotlight does not satisfy. (Photo: Creative Commons/Deepak Kumar)

Ali Amad
Arts & Entertainment Editor

As a journalism student, I was excited to find out a film about the misrepresented subject of the media was coming out.

The critical buzz for recently released Oscar contender Spotlight was overwhelmingly positive. I sat down in the theatre, enthused about the prospect of seeing something grounded in the real world, away from galactic battles and caped superheroes.

I left two hours later, feeling completely underwhelmed.

It’s no easy feat to make an irrelevant film about a global child abuse cover-up, but Spotlight somehow manages to do it.

The film is based on the real-life investigation of a team of reporters working for the Boston Globe in 2001. Their work in exposing the Catholic Church’s concealment of widespread sexual abuse of children in the Boston area finally gave long-silenced victims a voice. The actual “Spotlight” team also went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

Anyone watching this movie can’t deny it is a timely reminder of the power of investigative journalism. Spotlight is involved in the kinds of long-term journalistic endeavors that are becoming increasingly anachronistic in 2015.

Media consumption is irresistibly gravitating towards the ephemeral, to the quickly disposable story of the moment. Our unquenchable thirst for fresh content has ramped up the news cycle, making the Spotlight style of journalism an expensive and impractical luxury.

But this brand of journalism provides a valuable service to society. It sheds light on stories that otherwise remain untold, from the 1970s Watergate scandal that deposed an American president, to The Washington Post and The Guardian revealing the scope of NSA surveillance on ordinary citizens.

Its loss is a danger we should all be alarmed about. It’s a shame the film fails to sell this point.

Spotlight has received universal critical acclaim and is one of the best films I’ve seen all year (which isn’t really saying much), but its impact is questionable. A journalism film was never going to contend with the comic-book franchises for box office dominance, but Spotlight is undercut by its stale subject matter.

Catholic priests molesting children is no longer shocking or breaking news in 2015. It undoubtedly deserves to get attention as a continually endemic disgrace, but it’s ironic that a film aimed at safeguarding good old-fashioned journalism chooses a dated topic as its focus point.

The film’s style and presentation doesn’t help matters. Spotlight lacks dramatic heft and suffers mightily for it.

Making a compelling film about the mundane, tedious and repetitive nature of investigative journalism was always going to be a challenge. Director Thomas McCarthy, who you may recognize from his role as a corrupt journalist on The Wire, is a talented and assured filmmaker, but he doesn’t give the audience much to connect with.

Spotlight’s central characters are threadbare throwaways, from the reporters played by Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo to the editors played by Liev Schreiber and Mad Men’s John Slattery.

The only cast member who acquits himself well is Michael Keaton as Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, but we never get the chance to fully understand him. Characters jockey for limited screen time and are inevitably left with sparse subplots and unsatisfying resolutions. The faces that are our conduit into this film’s world are sidelined for the real star of the show.

The true protagonist of Spotlight is Boston itself, and the film weaves through the complex fabric of a city to explore how every aspect of society is implicated in something as pervasive as the Catholic Church cover-up.

We also get a feel for the important place the Catholic faith has in Boston’s identity. The film also makes worthy points on the roles the different guardians of society have, from the church to the law to the media itself.

But will this film inspire an audience?

Spotlight is neither sensationalized melodrama, nor is it inspirational.

The moments that stick with you are too few and far between, with one outstanding scene involving an abused victim, now an adult, detailing the graphic extent of the damage done to him and countless others to the Spotlight team.

It’s a rare show-stopping moment in a film that is otherwise subtle to a fault.

I was engaged with the film, and yet watched it with detached interest. It’s entertaining enough in the moment, but too easily forgettable.

A small group in my theatre applauded the film during the end credits, but the majority of the crowd waded out in silence, more relieved than moved.

At time of going to print, Spotlight has earned a total of $16 million in the U.S. since its limited release a month ago, a pittance compared to the $100 million opening weekend for Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 during the same time period.

The answer to which film has a worthier message is obvious, but in a day and age where presentation is everything, eyes and ears will be turned towards the flashy and compelling.

Spotlight has the substance, but fails to flash or compel, making it yet another critical darling that fails to connect with mainstream audiences.