The Truth-Seeking Ensemble: A Review of Spotlight

By: Shira Huberfeld  |  February 10, 2016


Over the past few years, there have been two strong trends in the film industry. One is the semi-biographical movie. These are movies with a strain of truth (based on a true story and the like). Sometimes, their message advances a specific social belief (The Danish Girl and the transgender, The Big Short and the animosity towards Wall Street); other times, it gives an action movie a sense of historical credibility (Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, 13 Hours).

The second trend is the focus on a “Best Actor movie”, a movie designed to give a character an Academy Award nomination. Movies star one actor or actress in the main role, allowing them to carry the whole plot. Leonardo Decaprio in The Revenant, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and The Theory of Everything, and Matt Damon, in The Martian, all exemplify this move, placing the burden of performance (both in acting and sales) on the shoulders of a single lead.

Spotlight, one of the recent Oscar nominees, stays true to one end while bucking the other. It is based on a true story. In the early 2000s, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative research team uncovered a network of pedophilic priests and a huge abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in the Boston area. After publishing more than 600 articles on the subject in one year, the team received a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. The movie focuses on the hiring of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) as the new editor-in-chief of the Globe, who first suggested an investigation into Boston priest John Goeghan, following the team up to the day the they published their first story.

It would have been easy for Spotlight to be a one-man plotline. However, there are great actors in the movie, from Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton to John Slattery and Rachel McAdams. The strength of the movie comes from its ensemble class. It allows the movie to focus on the frenzied pace of journalism but, more importantly, on the impact of a dirty secret within a community.

Each character on the Spotlight team deals with the scandal from a different perspective; one father worries about the safety of his children, a woman fears telling her devout grandmother what she knows, a journalist laments his loss of faith, while another fears he was involved in keeping the story down. By viewing the story through these different lenses, the viewer sees the full crisis of what happens when a town’s dirty secret gets out.

Spotlight also highlights another important topic—whistleblowers. As social justice crusaders move to publicize all injustice, people celebrate the bringing of truth to light and the pursuit of justice for past ills. Spotlight explores the darker side of the quest. Throughout the movie, as the characters unravel more and more sexual abuse, it becomes clearer that the Globe was partially responsible for the truth remaining in the dark until that point. As the team becomes more resolute in its desire for the scandal to be unveiled, they realize the that they were part of a community complicit in looking the other way. The movie highlights the grey nature of its heroes and how whistleblowers are not sin-free.

Sexual abuse by authority figures, especially clergy, is never a comfortable topic, and Spotlight flourishes on exploring the discomfort through its ensemble cast and emphasis on the whistleblower/conspirator dynamic. It’s a must see for those who want good acting, a great plot, or just something that leaves you with a lot to think about.