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Spotlight – A Great Film

March 2, 2016 | By

Spotlight just won the Academy Award for Best Picture in February 2016. It not only beat out Alejandro Iñárritu’s revenge period film, The Revenant, but audience favorites like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, as well as critical darlings Room and Brooklyn. Spotlight also won the award for best original screenplay. A Silhouette review.

The poster of Spotlight

The poster of Spotlight

Spotlight just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Spotlight not only beat out Alejandro Iñárritu’s revenge period film, The Revenant, but audience favorites like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, as well as critical darlings Room and Brooklyn. Spotlight also won the award for best original screenplay. It is believed that Spotlight winning the Screen Actors Guild Award recently for the Best Ensemble Cast must have clinched the choice. Though they did not actually win, Mark Ruffalo who plays Michael Rezendes and Rachel Adams who portrays the lone woman in the team, Sacha Pfeiffer were nominated for the Oscar but did not win it. Director Tom McCarthy was also nominated but lost out to Alejandro González Iñárritu. As a journalist, it makes me happy to discover that even in the glamorous and overhyped world of Oscars, it is reality that has breasted the tape to the winning post over glitz and colour and sound and music.

Indian cinema has not paid over much attention to investigative stories picked from real life journalism perhaps due to possibilities of facing problems at the censorship stage and issues connected to access to sources that are authentic and reliable. Besides, in recent times, most films featuring journalism and the different media that journalism embraces are focussed on a given journalist who is more often than not, the protagonist of the film. In this sense, a film made on real life investigative stories per se is almost always absent. No One Killed Jessica is one example of a real life investigative story followed up vigorously and without fear by a female journalist. The director very wisely kept on shifting focus from the journalistic story to the journalist and to the victim’s sister but looking beyond, one fails to discover an actual celluloid transposition of a real story. Madras Café that features a non-nonsense BBC journalist who comes to do an expose based on suspicions of a plan to assassinate the leader in Sri Lanka is a good example.

Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes  in Spotlight

Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Spotlight

Ruhi and Danish Khan, two researcher-journalists based in London, in their paper From Romeo to Rambo: Popular Portrayals of Journalists in Bollywood Cinema, classify journalists in Bollywood films under five popular representations of the journalist as romantic companion, glamour chaser, investigative superhero, power magnate, and brainless mouthpiece. “These categories, though distinct, can also find themselves sharing screen space and often overlapping in the same film’s narrative. This article argues that these stereotypes have been so strongly entrenched in Bollywood scripts that even films inspired by real-life incidences fail to break free of them,” they write as their basic argument.

Rachel Adams as Sacha Pfeiffer in Spotlight

Rachel Adams as Sacha Pfeiffer in Spotlight

In this ambience of glamour, chutzpah, colour, music and noise, a film like Spotlight is an excellent example of an entire film team presenting a very significant story of investigative journalism on screen with a commitment equal to the commitment of the actual journalists who did the chain of stories for the Boston Globe under its famous team label Spotlight. The film is an almost documentary replication of one of the most explosive investigative stories done in 2002 with the exception that the film features actors portraying the roles of the actual journalists who worked on the stories in different capacities within the team.

The series of stories investigated into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church that revealed not only the abuse but more shocking was the decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal and government establishments that went to great lengths to see that the story did not get out and reach the public. The waves shook the entire world at the time. After the Spotlight team published its work, the team created a book about the events. Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the leading members of the team is a co-author of Betrayal: The Crisis of the Catholic Church. The consequences of this massive revelation rocked the world and had a ripple effect across the many major religious institutions.

The actors who portrayed the characters in the Spotlight team are renowned names in their own right including a couple of director-actors. They are Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James. The unique feature of this film is that the original journalists worked in tandem with the film team in general and the actors in particular. The film stands out for the restraint its director Tom McCarthy shows in a narrative that could very easily have gone overboard with melodrama and cheap dramatics. It does not. The outstanding performances of the actors slip under the skin of the characters so deeply that we forget the star charisma we know them for. McCarthy effectively offers the audience small glimpses into the private lives of the Spotlight team who are so over-focussed on field, documentary and court research, having to fight every bit of the way that their private life seems to be the last priority on the agenda of their lives.

In the film, the team members separately interview some of the victims of abuse who have now grown in years and are mature individuals suffering from different kinds of trauma and have not been able to leave the pain, the humiliation and the torture behind. The screenplay could have easily cut back to the past to depict scenes of graphic violence but that is not even considered because that is not the subject of the film.

Liev Schreiber who plays Marty Baron, the-then newly appointed editor of the Boston Globe attacks the earlier journalists of being party to the massive cover-up by not carrying the story forward when it actually happened. Not only does he ‘live’ the part of the no-nonsense, less-talking and dignified editor but also exudes the aura of authenticity into his performance. The other performers are dynamic and constantly on the go, literally and in action, persistently trying to overcome blocks put up by the powers-that-be responsible for the massive cover-up. The members of their team have their differences and their fights like all journalists working on the same story do, and bring to their performance the flavour of reality though this is a fiction film. Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented many of the victims and does a great job of being very tight-lipped, almost rude and then when he decides that they are serious, warms up to his contact, the much younger and the most dynamic member of the team, Michael Rezendes. Michael Keaton plays Walter Robinson, who heads the Spotlight team.

The Spotlight team

The Spotlight team

But the acting honours are just the beginning of the Spotlight story. What about the very low-key music that runs like a powerful undercurrent with the visuals, the lightning-paced editing that jump-cuts from one scene to the other in a completely different location with razor-sharp precision and effect shaking you up just when you think everything is getting in place? The other is the production design. To recreate a city like Boston in the US ten years after the event is not the easiest of jobs for any production designer because a gap of ten years has brought about radical changes in the archeological, cultural and demographical profile of the city. But production designer Stephen H. Carter has done more than justice to the demands this made on his creativity, his talent, his skill and his ingenuity. He had his team measure the layout of the Globe’s headquarters, and then used those specs to re-create 120 cubicles in a vacant Sears department store outside of Toronto. He also ‘dressed up’ several scenes shot on the actual premises of the Boston Globe such as the presses, the library and so on.

In 2002, the Spotlight team published nearly 600 stories about sex abuse of children by more than 70 priests whose actions were concealed by the Catholic Church. In December 2002, Cardinal Law resigned from the Boston Archdiocese and was re-assigned to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. 249 priests have been publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. As of 2008, 1,476 victims survived priest abuse in the Boston area. Nationwide 6,427 priests have been accused of sexually abusing 17,259 victims. In the years since Spotlight’s report, sexual abuse by Catholic Church priests has been uncovered in 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world wide. (Source:, a database compiled by Terry McKiernan) Some of these statistics come up after the film ends.

The series of stories published over one year on this fragile subject won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. The stories also received other honors such as the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Freedom of Information award, and the Taylor Award for Fairness in Newspapers. Spotlight, the film, takes your breath away in terms of the pace at which one scandal unfolds after another, the way the Catholic Church has tried its best to cover up one of the most tragic sex scandals in history that might drive a few to begin questioning the authenticity of the Church itself, who knows? Watch it if it is still running!

The pictures used in this article have been contributed by the author.

The opinions shared by the writer is her personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. The writer is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
All Posts of Shoma A Chatterji

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Silhouette Magazine publishes articles, reviews, critiques and interviews and other cinema-related works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers and critics as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers and critics are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. Images on Silhouette Magazine are posted for the sole purpose of academic interest and to illuminate the text. The images and screen shots are the copyright of their original owners. Silhouette Magazine strives to provide attribution wherever possible. Images used in the posts have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, YouTube, Pixabay and Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.