(I reviewed this movie some time ago, in another place, before the Oscar awards for 2016. Now the film has been released on DVD, I thought it timely to re-publish the review, with a little updating.)
This is a movie about a highly sensitive subject, paedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church. It is based on the true story of how the "Spotlight" team of investigative reporters at the "Boston Globe" newspaper exposed systemic and persistent cover-ups of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area, how it was hushed up at the very highest levels of the Church, and how some of the secular city authorities cooperated with the Church. Not a pretty subject.
Now, one of the problems with making a movie about newspaper investigations is that reporters, in general, don't do visually exciting things as they go about their jobs. Unless they are working in a war zone or a natural disaster area, all they do is sit at desks researching on their computers, or making phone calls to contacts, or talking to contacts in coffee-shops or on secluded park benches – just generally doing the boring legwork that is necessary to make a good story. The essence of an exciting newspaper movie is to make the process of news-gathering and story-writing somehow exciting. This is not always easy. The classic newspaper movie of modern times, "All the President's Men" (1976), about the Watergate conspiracy, shows how it can be done – well, up to a point anyway. Alan J Pakula, who directed the 1976 film, almost, but not quite, achieves the perfect newspaper movie.
"Spotlight", directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, faces the same problem: how to make the news-gathering process exciting, when there are no gunfights, car chases, bodies on the carpet, or other attention-grabbing disasters to relieve the potentially tedious nature of what reporters do on a daily basis. Happily, the makers of "Spotlight" more or less turn tedium into tight tension and inject interest into their subject matter. So much so, the movie won, not only the Oscar for Best Picture, but also an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, at the 2016 Academy Awards. Given my reservations about “newspaper” movies, these are major and well deserved achievements.
A good cast, playing their roles with gusto, helps mightily. Liev Schreiber and John Slattery (nice to see him spreading his movie wings after "Breaking Bad") play senior execs at the Boston Globe who encourage their "Spotlight" team to come up with the goods. Michael Keaton (nice to see him away from that boring "Batman" role), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James are the key members of the investigating team. McAdams is always cute and likeable, while Ruffalo is especially powerful when he pleads for the team to be allowed to do their job, at one point when the newspaper's support seems a bit shaky.
Bit by bit, the team gather their evidence, find witnesses and documents, and put together a ground-breaking story that shakes the Catholic Church in Boston to its foundations. The director, writers and editors of this movie, by and large, do a good job in putting the jigsaw puzzle together at a smart trot, so the moviegoer's attention is pretty well kept throughout the film which is not too long at 2 hours 9 min. Perhaps the saddest, and most telling, part of the film is the very end, when the movie shows a list of cities and regions around the world (yes, Australia gets several mentions) where institutional child sex scandals have been unearthed.
Overall, a powerful, affecting film about a sleazy topic of our times that just won't go away. Its Oscar for Best Picture was, however, something of a surprise to me. Not that it's bad; quite the contrary. All these judgments are of course largely subjective, but I'd have given the Best Picture gong to “The Revenant”, which I thought a most awesome piece of movie-making. Maybe Hollywood thought efforts to root out child abuse deserved the special cachet of an Oscar. If so, who can say they are wrong?
In summary, a worthy and hard-hitting movie, but not one for kids or your elderly innocent aunt.
My star rating (out of 5): * * * *