The best film won: 5 ways Spotlight beat the Oscars odds

Tom McCarthy’s film may have broken a few cardinal rules but still took two Academy Awards, including best picture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Spotlight , Tom McCarthy’s drama about the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of child sexual abuse within the Catholic church, became an Oscar favourite the moment it made its European and North American debuts in Venice, Telluride and Toronto last year.

READ MORE: Spotlight looks at the Catholic Church’s shameful response to child sexual abuse in Boston

The film, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber as reporters and editors involved with the Pulitzer Prize-winning series, possessed all of the markers of a shoo-in for best picture: an all-star cast, an classic aesthetic reminiscent of great ’70s-era thrillers, and a socially important subject.

But like all front-runners, Spotlight started to lose steam with prognosticators late in the race, when challengers like The Revenant , Alejandro González Iñárritu’s visually stunning frontier survival story, and The Big Short , Adam McKay’s jittery, aggressive portrait of the 2008 financial meltdown, began to earn honours at guild and critics’ awards.

When The Revenant wound up earning three Academy Awards – including Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Oscar, Inarritu’s best-directing Oscar (his second in a row) and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography award (his third in a row) – it felt like Spotlight might have peaked too soon. But, after winning the evening’s first award for best original screenplay, it wound up winning best picture, as some observers (including this one) maintained it would all along.

READ ALSO: ‘Spotlight’ is best picture and DiCaprio finally gets an Oscar, but diversity drama takes centre stage

Herewith, the arguments against Spotlight’s best picture chances that were overheard during awards season, and the reasons they were wrong:

“It wasn’t cinematic”

Give the Spotlight script to eight directors, one filmmaker recently told me, and they would have delivered exactly the same film. “It’s a TV movie,” he cracked, dismissively. It’s true that Spotlight had an understated visual style, but to confuse that with lack of aesthetic ambition is a mistake. Working with production designer Stephen H. Carter and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy created a visual language that could be described as “bravura banal,” reproducing the Globe newsroom in all its beige, cluttered glory to convey both verisimilitude and a sense of overwhelming scale.

In a grand tradition refined by such classics as The Apartment and All the President’s Men, McCarthy pulled the camera back rather than coming in for TV-friendly close-ups, bringing viewers into the space inhabited by Spotlight’s protagonists, underlining their struggles against vast, unchecked institutional power. The result was a motion picture every bit as involving and vibrant as The Revenant’s histrionics or The Big Short’s tics and mannerisms; indeed, Spotlight was all the more dynamic for being so quiet and self-assured.

“It was boring”

A rule of thumb has taken hold in the film industry that a movie has to grab the viewer by the throat in the first five minutes, then keep squeezing until a suitably explosive denouement. Spotlight puts the lie to that more-is-more ethos. Admittedly, it starts slowly, but that establishes the film’s tone, atmosphere and credibility, and gives the audience crucial time to understand the story and the stakes.

McCarthy and his co-screenwriter, Josh Singer, spent months meticulously researching the Globe’s investigation, a level of exactitude that infused the entire production, drawing viewers’ eyes and ears to details that immersed them in a human drama with the edgy suspense of a thriller, but without resorting to cloak-and-dagger heroics or sensationalism. There’s not one ounce of fat on the bone, nor an instance of the filmmakers putting undue spin on the ball. Far from boring, Spotlight was lean, taut and urgently propulsive.

“There were no big moments”

Rosalind Russell famously said, “You know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theatre happy.” The subversive genius of Spotlight is that is doesn’t contain any “movie moments” in the conventional sense. There’s one scene of Mark Ruffalo’s character blowing up at his editors for their decision to hold a story; but that emotional outburst is a brief exception to a rule that Spotlight obeys faithfully, constantly undercutting cheap sentiment and obviousness in favour of understatement, allusion and oblique suggestion.

Two examples: when the devout grandmother of reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) asks for a glass of water while reading the Globe’s exposé, and when Ruffalo watches as a lawyer played by Stanley Tucci meets with yet another young victim of abuse. Those aren’t big moments, it’s true: They’re great ones.

“Where was the guy jumping his horse off a cliff and eating a bison liver?”

A subset of the “no big moments” argument is the Great Man Theory of filmmaking, wherein movies are simply backdrops for larger-than-life star turns and award-worthy performances (hey, it worked for Leo!). Spotlight once again inverts the norm, presenting viewers with the rare spectacle of name actors submerging their egos, ceding centre stage and genuinely working together as a unified whole to tell the story of a group effort, rather than individual heroics.

In this way, Spotlight actually managed to surpass its most obvious antecedent, All the President’s Men, portraying journalistic work as the tedious daily grind that it is, but without two huge movie stars using their charisma to carry the film, or enticing episodes in shadowy garages. What’s more, the film honestly confronts the Globe’s own failures in reporting on the sex abuse scandal in years past. Rather than perpetuating the mythology of the intrepid reporter, Spotlight both de-glamorises the profession and restores a simple sense of collective mission and integrity.

“It only appeals to journalists”

There’s no doubt that Spotlight has a special place in the hearts of working reporters and editors: no ink-stained wretch – or former one – can fail to appreciate the painstaking care McCarthy and Singer took in order to honour a calling in which clip files attain the holy patina of a holy grail. But Spotlight went further and became more than just a journalistic procedural. Thanks to McCarthy’s unerring sense of proportion, as well as his compassion, what in other hands might have been a polemic or manipulative melodrama turned out to be a sobering portrait of betrayal, tenacity and grief.

Films are visual experiences, as well as aural and intellectual ones. But at their most powerful, they’re deeply emotional. Spotlight brought an important issue to light with strong characters and adroit storytelling – but never at the expense of the aching human loss at its centre.

Washington Post

Spotlight is in cinemas now