I put off watching Spotlight for a while. It had a lot going for it — talented cast and the subject matter — reporters investigating child abuse covered up by the Catholic Church — was charged, tragic, and topical. Way I saw it, this was gonna be a heavy, intense movie. Hence putting off watching a presumably gut-wrenching movie
Which is why it’s so frustrating that Spotlight wastes so much potential in favor of being painfully obvious at best, and poor melodrama at worst.
Spotlight is definitely about something: namely the Catholic Church covering up child abuse scandals. This is undoubtedly an important topic. The thing is, it doesn’t say anything about that, except that, well, it’s bad. Which it is, but that’s the obvious thing. It doesn’t say anything more about it, nothing about personal impact.
Since it’s hard to critique this movie in a vacuum, let’s compare it to The Big Short, shall we? There are some similarities; both discuss recent happenings, and both are about a group of people looking into it and are proven right. In Short this is about finance people who saw the housing crash coming and invested on it happening (and they’re right).
Now, Short has an excellent moment when the main characters are finally proven right when the housing market crashes. But rather than just letting it be a victory, the movie turns it tragic when the protagonists realize just what it means. Yes, they’re rich, but the economy is screwed over. It’s not sad just because we know what it means, but it’s sad because the characters realize exactly what their predictions mean.
Conversely, Spotlight has no stakes: the coverup is never made personal. The abuse victims who step forward are supporting characters, plot devices with some great moments, but we aren’t really invested in them. As for the main characters? They’re all lapsed Catholics, which is touched on in one quick scene and never comes up again. The closest we get is when Sacha Pfeiffer mentions that she can’t go to Mass with her grandmother anymore. But we don’t see how the revelations about the Church has affected their relationship (as Sacha only goes to church because of her grandmother). Imagine if we’d been invested in Sacha and her grandmother and we’d seen the rift Sacha’s pursuit of the coverup created between them.
As the movie is, there’s precious little conflict in the film. The Spotlight team never argue amongst themselves and there’s no debate at the newspaper if they should continue pouring all their time into this story. Furthermore, for all the talk of the influence of the Catholic Church on Boston, they don’t really get in the way of the team at all. We’re told that there’s a coverup — and we’re even shown it happening in the first scene — but beyond that the Church doesn’t take an active role in stopping the uncovering. Thus the Spotlight team carries on their investigation without any major obstacles and with little personal/non-professional investment.
All this could be done well enough, but the thing is Spotlight doesn’t spend time unpacking what the cover up really means. Yes, it’s bad, but so what? The movie doesn’t go any further than the first thought. Herein is Spotlight’s biggest flaw: it’s obvious, safe. It’s a good portrayal of investigative journalism, but doesn’t do much to explore just how important it is. Say that covering up child abuse is bad, but don’t get personal with it. Have all the potentiality for negative fallout should the piece go to print, but instead have them getting it published be a plain, obvious, victory. Use ominous piano music to remind us that this is serious.
Now, much of my dissatisfaction with Spotlight stems with my own expectations. Having followed the more recent spate of news concerning the Catholic Church covering up child abuse, I was expecting a movie that really got into it, really explored the corruption and awfulness; I wanted a movie that stressed how much of a fight it was to get this to light. That Spotlight played it so safe was disappointing. So much more could have been done with what they had that the movie can’t help but to end up being a bit of a let down.