It is rare to see a film that is based on true events that can properly merge the knowledge giving feel of a documentary and the entertainment value of a drama without the manipulation of facts or events to sensationalize a story yet, we are treated, or perhaps burdened, with this perfect mixture in Spotlight. Spotlight contains an absolutely superb cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams who had to play their characters perfectly in order for the film to carry the weight that it was meant to have on its audience, but their performances will not be the central points explored in this week’s article. The real power that the film was able to have over its audience, came in the director, Thomas McCarthy’s, efforts of being able to shrink the city of Boston down to a close knit town in order to effectively show the power of the Catholic Church. However, as always with Celluloid Cinema, I must acknowledge the role the writers, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, played in the film. While it is easy to criticize their work as already being cut out for them since Spotlight is based on a true story, I believe their work should be admired for the way they effectively used their characters to represent larger aspects of society. But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves, in order for the characters to work the way they do in Spotlight, the way Boston is portrayed in the film must be first understood.
When most people hear about the city of Boston, the first thing that comes to mind is not that it is a small closely knitted town where everyone knows each other. That is why throughout the course of the film there are subtle, and not so subtle, comments made about how one character knows the exact neighborhood where another grew up, how one character works across the street from his former high school, or how everyone in town knows that a new person is in town and questioning their way of life. By casting the city in this light, the audience begins to see the city of several hundred thousand, as a small town where everyone is connected in one way or another. This concept is highlighted even more by the fact that a lot of the trivial characters in the film that are meant to make up the population of Boston are only seen in small suburban neighborhoods where the large skyscrapers of downtown Boston are not highlighted. Now, at this point you may be questioning why this scaling down of Boston is so crucial to the films execution, and to tell you the truth, it is not just crucial to the film but the main element to the film’s success.
One of the major issues that both Spotlight and the Boston Globe are hoping to explore is the idea of the church overstepping the law and instead being the policing and government of Boston. While it is no secret to many that Boston is a heavily Catholic city with as much as 47% of its population identifying with Catholicism. For those not familiar with the culture of the city, the power that the people put into the Catholic Church may not be completely understood. This is where the shrinking down of the city becomes important. Since the audience is mostly only shown the small suburbs of Boston, they are only exposed to really small buildings and houses meaning if a large building is spotted in a shot, its dominance and superiority are heightened. This concept is used multiple times throughout the film, as whenever the reporters are going from house to house investigating the story, in the background there are these large churches with intricate architecture that strikingly juxtaposes the small run down suburban houses in Boston. These chilling shots constituently hit the viewer in a montage like fashion that not only illustrate the dominating power the church has over the city, but in my opinion, the structure of each of these shots mimics the same landscapes that we often see in depictions of the Dark ages when the Catholic church ruled entire countries. Once this stage is set, the audience is clearly able to comprehend the foothold that the church has on the city, which in turn raises the gravity of the film story and installs a fear over the audience. Although, how much is a stage able to emit without its characters?
In order to make sure the illusion of the small setting remains intact, there must be a constrain put on the number of characters that are in the film. This means that showing all of the different demographics and classes in Boston to get their take on the situation surrounding the church is out of the question as it would highlight how big the city is. Although, is it not central to the film to understand how others are going to react once they hear the news about the church? Of course it is, and the writers of the film understood that they needed to express the reactions of the varying groups in Boston someway with the limited resources that they had available. This was accomplished through the use of the four main characters of the film, the Spotlight team. Looking back on the film, very little is actually known about the personal life’s of each of the reporters that does not strictly pertain to some connection to the Catholic church and the role it plays in their life. By examining each reporter one by one, it becomes apparent that they can all be placed into a specified demographic. Starting with the lead of the Spotlight team Keaton’s character, Robby, we understand that he went to a Catholic school during the time that the abuse was at it’s highest. In fact, a priest abused one of Robby’s fellow classmates. By seeing the way in which he deals with the story coming to light throughout the course of the film the audience is able to see what the reaction of someone that had the possibility of very well being abused by the priests would be. Next, we have Ruffalo’s character, Mike, who mentions his wife once in the film, but when he see his apartment it doesn’t appear like he lives with anyone else. Towards the end of the film he talks about how one day he hoped to go to church again before he found out about the abuse, as it seemed like something that could help his life. I think that by putting together these clues, it is evident Mike is meant to represent the down and out individual who turns to church when everything in his life goes downhill and through him we are able to see how this abuse robs individuals of their religion. In a similar light to Robbie, we have McAdams character, Sacha, who has very strong family ties to the church allowing one to understand how someone who grew up in a religious household would deal with the news. Finally, perhaps the most relatable character of the main four is the one trying to protect his children, Brian d’Arcy James’s character, Matt. The only personal information that we learn about Matt is that he has kids he must protect from a priest reform house down the street. It is quite clear that Matt is meant to operate as the film’s look into what parents in Boston will think about the situation as his main goal throughout the film is to make sure his children (and his neighbor’s) children are not exposed to this abuse.
I can easily say that Spotlight is a great example of how a film can be used to demonstrate a horror in our society and prompt us to change it. The film lacks any bias or sensationalism and instead just focuses on presenting the facts around an issue so the audience can understand for themselves why the issue is bad. While in a larger sense the film is meant to be more than just a film, it is in fact a very well put together film. As briefly highlighted at the beginning of the article the entire cast is phenomenal and is able to captivate the audience through emotionally grueling moments. Moreover, the apparatus created by both the writers and director of the film clearly show they understand how their story is supposed to be portrayed to audiences. Looking back at the film I really cannot find any issue with it and I highly recommend that everyone should see this film. Therefore, it is only right Celluloid Cinema gives Spotlight 5 out of 5 reels.
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