clock menu more-arrow no yes

Oscars 2016: Spotlight just won Best Picture. Here's why it did — and didn't — deserve to win.

Let's praise this movie's drab realism — and its understated but potent images.

The cast of Spotlight, which just won Best Picture.
The cast of Spotlight, which just won Best Picture.
Open Road Films

Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's drama about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, was named Best Picture at the Oscars Sunday, February 28, 2016. But did it deserve the award? We gathered some of our writers to discuss.

Is Spotlight just Oscar bait?

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.
Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo keep newsroom fashion real.
Open Road Films

Todd VanDerWerff: Of the three nominees with a realistic shot at winning — The Big Short, The Revenant, and this — Spotlight was my preference (though I liked Mad Max and Brooklyn better of all nominees).

But it also felt the most obviously Oscar-y of the three, which may cause some disappointment among those who would love the Academy to get a little edgier (something that will never, ever happen).

Look a little deeper, though, and I don't think Spotlight is as much Oscar bait as some have written it off for being. For one thing, its emotional impact is more suggested than depicted.

One of the film's more divisive scenes among critics is when Mark Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes has a big breakdown about how the story is still so far away from being published. Many people have complained that it feels like an Oscar clip, in a movie that had so far steadfastly avoided such things. The scene is there because some version of it really happened, and I think it works within the film overall. But the film is so non-showy that this showiness stands out like a sore thumb — and the Oscars usually don't like non-showy.

I have some theories as to why they didn't mind when it came to Spotlight. But first, I'd love to hear both of your thoughts on the movie. And do you think it deserved to win?

Dylan Matthews: Let us first have a moment of silence for Mad Max, which I think we can all agree was by far the strongest Best Picture nominee, even if it never stood a chance.

With that out of the way, I’m still chuffed that Spotlight won, and not just because Liev Schreiber plays my onetime boss in it and does a ​very good job​. The relative dearth of journalism procedurals has always puzzled me. The process of reporting is just talking to people, having realizations, talking to other people inspired by those realizations, etc.

And while that may sound boring, it's also basically what TV and movie detectives do all the time: talk to witnesses, get ideas for other witnesses through them, etc. And investigative reporting of the kind highlighted in Spotlight is particularly similar.

As with police procedurals, there’s a central act of wrongdoing motivating the protagonists. There is hidden information that must be uncovered. There are witnesses who could break the story wide open who need to be coaxed into talking, and tended to over time.

A handful of journalism procedurals like this have worked in the past (All the President’s Men, of course, but the criminally underrated Shattered Glass as well), but they’re still relatively rare. And other attempts at depicting our profession have failed in any number of ways.

As Marin Cogan has written, the "comely reporter who sleeps with subject of her profile to get in his head" has become an unfortunate sexist trope in everything from Thank You for Smoking to House of Cards to Top Five. Hell, even The Wire’s journalism storyline was mostly terrible, despite great acting by future Spotlight director Tom McCarthy as serial fabulist Scott Templeton.

So it was great to see Spotlight pull it off. There were some notes here and there that rang false; when Mark Ruffalo's character calls an expert on the church who casually estimates that maybe 80 priests in the Boston area abuse children, the reporter treats it as a shocking revelation rather than one dude’s guess.

But for the most part, it’s understated and thorough. The characters follow up and double check every assertion until it’s solid. The abuse is treated matter-of-factly; nothing is covered up, but nothing is sensationalized either. The "villains" aren’t treated as inexplicable monsters but as ordinary humans who chose to do nothing when they should’ve spoken up.

It’s not a mind-bending cinematic masterpiece like Mad Max, but it’s a solidly constructed, admirable work.

Spotlight's realism runs surprisingly deep

The Spotlight team gathers with their editor to hash out the story.
The Spotlight team gathers to hash out the story.
Open Road Films

Libby Nelson: I was probably the last journalist in America to see Spotlight. I'll admit I went in hoping to find fault with it, and it blew me away. I expected a journalism procedural with a heavy veneer of smugness on the virtues of the old media. I got something far smarter than that.

Spotlight is a story about genuinely heroic local journalists on the cusp of a very, very bad time for local journalism. When newspaper reporters I know saw it and raved about how it reminded them why they do their job, I assumed it would come with a heavy, sanctimonious undercurrent of nostalgia for the Good Old Days. And while I mourn the destruction of old-school local newsrooms, anyone whose journalism is done primarily on the internet has limited patience for paeans to that era.

Instead, one of the things that impressed me was the movie's unflinching portrayal of the Globe's decades of institutional failure that led to its redemption. One of the most powerful moments, for me, was when the penny dropped that the newspaper had the key to the whole scandal years ago and did nothing.

That brings me to the other thing I think Spotlight did well. Like all scandals, the contours and even the magnitude of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have now become familiar, and thus blunted. Spotlight managed to make it seem fresh and horrible all over again.

The most moving, powerful moment of the movie, for me, didn't involve any of the actors or any dialogue — it was at the very end, as the credits rolled, when the screen displayed a seemingly endless list of all the other places where abusive priests had been reported. Just thinking of it now I'm getting angry all over again.

Finally, can we take a moment to acknowledge that Spotlight's costume designers were robbed of their own Oscar nomination? I have vivid memories of newsrooms circa 2001 — my parents met at the Kansas City Star, so I essentially spent my childhood hanging around a newspaper office — and the aesthetic of slightly ill-fitting 1990s Brooks Brothers was so well done that I knew immediately we were in good hands.

TV: What is sort of remarkable about Spotlight is the way it uses emotion. Normally a story like this would be filled with scenes where the actors assure us that everything is awful through lots of speechifying. And, sure, Spotlight has one scene like that (when Ruffalo's character breaks down about how the paper might get scooped by another paper that could screw up the story and further give the church cover).

But it is, for the most part, very sober. Rachel McAdams, for instance, was nominated for a part where she pretty much just listens to people (though she listens very well).

Hollywood tends to sell us the idea that the system is changed through huge, dramatic events. And certainly, that's true! Many, many horrible things in society have been changed via protest or war or some other massive movement.

But sometimes things change because people just doggedly try to find the truth, whether it's reporters or others. Spotlight captures that idea well.

To me, the most moving shot of the film is the final one, in which Michael Keaton goes down to the Spotlight office to find his reporters working the phones, taking calls from others who have stories to tell in the wake of the team's giant exposé.

From the vantage point of history, we know this will, at the very least, force the church to confront a very old sin. But for Keaton's character, this is what vindication looks like — even more work, but work that might budge things in the right direction, for once.

The biggest complaint against Spotlight (one I largely disagree with for reasons expressed in my original review and in this excellent piece by Matt Singer) is that the film has boring direction and is uncinematic.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but I'm curious to hear what you both think. Libby's already mentioned the pitch-perfect costume design, for instance, but I'd be interested to hear if you think the film's visual style (or lack thereof) lets it down.

Is Spotlight "uncinematic"?

Spotlight cast
Doing journalism!
Open Road Films

DM: Often, my test for whether a movie is "cinematic" is "could this work as a play?" And Spotlight probably could. The number of place changes would have to be cut down, but it's not a movie that lives or dies by its visual aesthetics. The heart of it is the dialogue, and, as Todd said, the act of characters listening.

But the same is even truer of Tom McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent, which I absolutely loved, much more than Spotlight. That featured only a small handful of locations, most in the first 10 minutes or so, and most of it took place at or near a single abandoned train depot. A stage adaptation would work at least as well, if not better.

And that's not an insult. Just because a story doesn't have to be told in film doesn't mean it shouldn't be. And indeed, it's refreshing at a time in which formal artistry is increasingly valued by the Academy — particularly in the person of Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won his second directing award in a row for The Revenant — to see a film as modest and unassuming as Spotlight gain plaudits.

Spotlight is just a good story, told well by a director who's trying to tell it right rather than show off. (Not that there's anything wrong with showing off — Mad Max does it plenty, and very, very well, too.)

I keep coming back to a description Nathan Rabin, in a piece explicating McCarthy's inexplicable disaster of a film The Cobbler, gave for the director's body of work: "His movies contained small-scale human stories about complex characters whose lives are profoundly affected when unexpected encounters change the way they see the world and themselves."

That gets at one of Spotlight's biggest strengths: The story wasn't just important to the reporters; it fundamentally changed them. It changed their relationship to their families, to their city, to their church, even to their God.

These weren't a bunch of out-of-towners who swooped in to uncover the secrets of the Boston archdiocese. They were Bostonites who watched as one of the cornerstones of their community was caught enabling horrific crimes.

For me, the most compelling character in the film might not be a reporter at all, but Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), a lawyer representing the church who slowly begins to cooperate with the investigation. "We all knew something was going on. Where were you?" he demands of his friend Robbie Robinson (Keaton), the Spotlight team editor.

It's a natural, and profoundly human, reaction to realizing you've been collaborating with evil: Accuse the accuser of doing the same. But it's also revealing. Everyone did know something was going on, and for a time Sullivan and everyone else looked the other way. When Sullivan confirms names of abusive priests for Robinson, he's not changing sides because the facts changed. He's changing sides because he changed.

LN: Sure. Spotlight was understated. Dylan called it a procedural, and in some ways that’s spot-on. There are some lovely shots — including the one you mentioned, Todd — but it’s not showy. The director clearly felt confident enough in the story he was telling to get out of the way.

That’s a good guideline for journalism, too. On a hunch, I just looked up the articles the Spotlight team wrote that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Sure enough, they’ve got that same unshowy quality. They aren’t overwritten or bent into a narrative. The facts are striking enough to stand on their own.

I think that’s why the Ruffalo Oscar-bait scene felt, to me, out of place, even if it was true to life. Spotlight isn’t a movie with many confrontations, even though it’s about the interplay between powerful institutions. And its style feels equally nonconfrontational. It doesn’t lean hard into the good guy/bad guy dynamic that is irrevocably present.

By the way: They sure are all guys, huh? In this #OscarsSoWhite year, it feels remiss not to mention that, even though it’s hard to avoid that dynamic when making a movie that prominently features two male-dominated institutions: newspapers and the Catholic Church. (All the President's Men didn’t pass the Bechdel test either, although it’s a bit depressing that nothing changed in a generation of hero journalist movies.)

At least McAdams’s character, Sacha, scored a point for women journalists everywhere by doing her job thoroughly and brilliantly without getting sidetracked by absurd and unethical trysts with sources. What's sadder is this is maybe the first time that’s been accurately depicted on screen.

TV: To wrap up, it will be interesting to see how history regards Spotlight (probably as the movie that beat Mad Max for Best Picture). The movie was a low-key box office success, and its critical bona fides were for real.

But that sense of drab realism will always cling to it a little bit. When future generations look back on this decade's Best Picture winners, will they think about Spotlight first? Or will they go to the flashier Birdman?

I hope they don't overlook Spotlight. It is by no means the best winner of even this decade, but it stands in for something that there's far too little of nowadays: a smartly told, straight-ahead story, aimed at providing a simmering, fascinating true story for adults (who aren't guaranteed to go out to the movies anymore the way, say, teenagers are).

The "uncinematic" complaints that have stuck to Spotlight have always been accompanied by the notion that the film is somehow too much like television. But I wonder if, in a sneaky way, that's not a compliment.

This kind of storytelling increasingly lives on TV — even if it doesn't naturally fit there. (Journalism dramas, in particular, have always struggled on TV.) In its own quiet way, Spotlight suggests these stories can still work on film. You just have to tell them well.

Correction: Thanks to an editing error, the original opening paragraph of this had the plot summary for The Big Short included. The article has been corrected.


Watch: Chris Rock's opening monologue

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.