Spotlight (Oscar-winning film)

Content warning: references to child sexual abuse.

Spotlight won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2015 and only one other, Best Original Script. As previously noted, Mad Max: Fury Road won six Oscars that year as well as the SFWA Ray Bradbury Award. The other Best Picture contenders included Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian (which won the Hugo), and five that I have not seen, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Revenant and Room.

2015 is another year from which I have seen very few films. Apart from those already mentioned, I have seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Terminator Genesys and the Belgian film The Brand New Testament. It is difficult to rank them, especially as Spotlight is the only one which is not science fiction or fantasy, but I think they are all pretty good and Spotlight is perhaps the most Oscar-y. IMDB voters put it 10th on one ranking and 24th on the other, with Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian ahead of it on both rankings.

Here’s a trailer.

One of the male leads was also the male lead in last year’s Oscar winner, Birdman; is is Michael Keaton, journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson here and disappointed actor/superhero Riggan last year. It’s not the first time we’ve had a lead actor in consecutive Oscar winners, and in fact we had Clark Gable in three years out of six in the 1930s. (Mutiny on the Bounty, It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind.)

Mark Ruffalo, the other male lead this year as journalist Mike Rezendes, was Bruce Banner / The Hulk in Hug-winning The Avengers in 2012.

Further down the list, Dennis Lynch has a bit part here as a courtroom clerk and was also one of Jack Nicholson’s henchmen in The Departed nine years ago, but I can’t be bothered to hunt down pictures.

The film is about the work done in 2001-2002 by the Spotlight team of journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper to expose the Catholic church’s systematic cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests, which resulted in the resignation in disgrace of Boston’s Cardinal Archbishop, Bernard Law. I thought it was pretty good. It is a hugely dramatic and sensitive topic, but the story concentrates on the shoe leather worn out by the team of journalists in pursuing the story, illuminating it with the details of the crimes that had been committed. It’s a subtle approach which works.

Inevitably I must note that there are practically no black speaking characters – there is a cop who I think gets three lines. Of course this is a story about white people being evil to other white people. But I was a bit surprised at just how white the film turned out to be. Boston is 25% African-American, and they can’t all be Protestants or Muslims.

There’s only one important woman character, Rachel McAdams playing journalist Sasha Pfeiffer, and she’s great as are the rest of the leads.

This is the second Oscar winner after The Departed to be set in and around Boston, and the second after Gentleman’s Agreement about journalism exposing a massive scandal. I liked it a lot more than either. Although I am not a journalist, I have hung around enough news rooms to get a sense of what they are like as working environments, and I am part of the information economy in the broader sense. I am sure that many of the actual details in Spotlight are not exactly as they happened in real life, but I liked the fact that the film portrays its protagonists as hard workers rather than heroes; there is a painful scene of reflection at the end where they discuss how and the Globe had sat on the story for years, despite having a decent lead.

The ongoing clerical child abuse scandals were the biggest factor that pushed me personally away from the Catholic church, and I am not alone. Fortunately this is not the result of any personal experience of mine. I was educated by nuns, who are in general less likely to be perpetrators than male priests, but as a sixth-former I did spend a week on an exchange visit to the Catholic school at Downside Abbey in Somerset. I felt then that it had a dreadful internal atmosphere of repression. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that several monks at Downside had abused pupils, though as far as I can tell, none of them were teaching there at the time of my visit in 1984. However, a later headmaster burned a wheelbarrow’s load of confidential personnel files in 2012. I am drawing my own conclusions.

I thought that the film dealt with the subject sensitively. Abuse is at the centre of the story, but it is not sensationalised; key elements of the narrative also include the cover-up of the truth by the establishment, and the bitter disappointment of people like me who expected better from their spiritual leaders.

So, in general a thumbs up for this, and I am putting it a third of the way down my league table of Oscar winners, below The Sting but above Chicago.

Next up is Moonlight, of which I know nothing.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015)