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Spotlight shines as unlikely Oscar contender

By Ryan Lee     2/2/16 9:17pm

With the 2016 Oscars just around the corner, most pundits have truncated the official list of eight Best Picture nominees to an unofficial shortlist of three: the gripping “The Revenant,” the provoking “The Big Short” and the oddball – “Spotlight.” Mainstream media have largely sidelined “Spotlight,” which is a true story about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church child sex scandals in the early 2000s. Directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight” is a film that dedicates its form to its narrative and delivers a snapshot of history with handcrafted care.

Keaton’s character Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson heads the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, a group of journalists who take on long-term projects to unearth hidden truths in society. Robby is tipped off to some questionable behavior of the Catholic Church, which holds considerable presence in the poor white neighborhoods of Boston. As the journalists (McAdams, Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber) each follow their leads, they discover the extent to which some members of the Church have repeatedly committed acts of child molestation and systematically concealed their crimes.

While many buzz-worthy Oscar films feature striking costume design, “Spotlight” showcases its stars with bad haircuts and in sweaters over collars. This is just one of many ways the film is an antithesis to the “Oscar-bait” genre. Deadpan camera angles, neutral color palettes and subdued montage sequences all serve to the same effect. That is, the audience is not looking at some cinematic universe, but something that hits too close to home.

Execution is everything when the balance is between antagonizing the institution of Catholicism and downplaying the film’s stakes. McCarthy’s barebone approach to storytelling avoids both ends of the spectrum. Take for example the way a victim’s story is revealed to the audience. Instead of the child, we see the man who was the child; instead of the incident, we see his telling of the incident from his perspective. There are no flashbacks or sweeping orchestral scores. All we have to go for is the look in his eyes, which communicates not only the childhood trauma he experienced, but more so the years of haunted baggage he has carried with him ever since. Thus “Spotlight” achieves in telling a story of institutional evils yet focusing on human proportions.

A film almost solely filled with scenes of office spaces and cubicles is brought to life in large part due to the strong performances of the ensemble cast. Each actor brings to the table a performance that dovetails with each other, with no one as the apparent lead or whose presence monopolizes the scene. This also presented the Academy with a dilemma when Keaton, McAdams and Ruffalo were all submitted in the Supporting categories. Ruffalo eventually beat Keaton to the nomination, presumably because his character has one brief juicy flight of passion.

If there is one word to describe this film, it is seamless. Seamless in the sense that where most directors use style to distinguish themselves, McCarthy intentionally burrows the camera work, performances, and production design deep inside the narrative. This stripped-down treatment is essentially a creative decision, made to seem easier to pull off than it actually is. Perhaps to its detriment as well, as it can easily fail to capture the imagination of the Oscar voter when it is placed in the same carrousel as “The Revenant” and “The Big Short.” Maybe not unsurprisingly, in its design to not draw attention to itself, “Spotlight” manages to accomplish just that.

When the media is as saturated as it is today, the currency is our attention. “Spotlight” may very well be one of those films that show up on Netflix and is added to the bottomless “My List,” situated between “Cinema Paradiso” and “Hot Fuzz.” The medium of journalism, arguably the “hero” of the “Spotlight,” is perhaps the most transformed — from something to “flip through,” to “scroll through,” now to “swipe through.” All the world’s a stage, and it lies in the palm of our hands.

“Spotlight” is currently playing in theaters.

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