Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Spotlight" (2015)

Scene from Spotlight
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: November 20, 2015
Director: Tom McCarthy
Written By: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 128 minutes

Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Picture
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo)
-Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams)
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Big Short
-Bridge of Spies
-Mad Max: Fury Road
-The Martian
-The Revenant

And the winner is...

In an age where the world is connected internationally, the reliance on professional journalism seems stronger than ever. While director Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight may focus on a priest scandal in Boston, Massachusetts, it is more about the dedication that journalism can have to making stories that matter come to light. In this case, a story that could've caused plenty of controversy from the Catholic Church ended up receiving the most support from them for showing what searching for the truth can truly do.  It is a rip roaring drama that shows the meticulous process and pains that come with finding out information that may be upsetting but needs to be said. Spotlight is a film that explores the past as well as hopefully the future of news cycles for years to come.

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer worked on the script to show the impact of journalism as a means of change. The script was completed in June of 2013 and made the best of the Black List's best unproduced screenplays of that year. McCarthy came from an extremely Catholic family and thus believes that the story isn't setting out to be specifically anti-religious despite the subject matter. Spotlight was more geared towards exploring the value of journalism and the newsroom, which Singer suggests had been disappearing by 2013. It was a way to preserve a profession that mattered greatly to the public's consciousness and should be seen in the glorified light that McCarthy and Singer saw it in - the former even playing a similar type of journalist on the HBO series The Wire.

The inspiration came from films like All the President's Men and The Verdict. McCarthy was attracted to the style of Sidney Lumet and did his best to imitate the dramatic nature of the Paul Newman courtroom drama. The only role that had issues with casting involved Sacha Pfeiffer, who was initially given to Margot Robbie until she dropped out. Amy Adams and Michelle Williams were also up for the part, but it eventually went to Rachel McAdams. Everything else fell into place easily as the film began principal photography in September of 2014 in Boston before continuing to shoot in Ontario. 

The cast was able to spend time with their real life counterparts. Michael Keaton was nervous about playing Walter Robinson because of his potential tricky Boston accent. It was later discovered that Robinson only had a selective accent that came out when he talked to people grew up in his hometown. Keaton spent days with him to get his mannerisms down. By the end, Robinson would claim that "My persona has been hijacked. If Michael Keaton robbed a bank, the police would quickly have me in handcuffs." He would also feel remorse about the people he fired due to Keaton's convincing performance. Likewise, Mark Ruffalo once asked Michael Rezendes (who is also the only real life person still working for Spotlight), "Can I listen to you yell at someone?" 

The detail went down to a minutiae as the color of pens also dictated rank in the newsroom hierarchy. The central newsroom was also a recreation designed to look like the original office. When the real life Spotlight team showed up to set, they rearranged the desks so that they matched what their work spaces actually looked like. The same team made cameos in the film, specifically appearing as crowd members in a baseball scene. When production wrapped, editor Tom McArdle took a reported eight months to finish editing the film. This included refining the scenes by cutting lines and fixing the pacing to help strengthen the story. By the end, five scenes were cut along with small pieces of dialogue here and there.

The film made its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It received immediate praise, though would be met with some hesitation from McCarthy. As a devout Catholic, he worried that the backlash would be immense. Instead the opposite happened where members of the church told him that they liked the film for depicting the search for truth and bringing to light a shameful issue. It was even said that priests around the Vatican were suggesting it to each other. The only one who opposed was Jack Dunn, who felt that he was misrepresented in the film for being too passive on the issue. While the director claims that it was artistic license to enhance the story, he still remains bitter with The New York Times also complaining about the film's misrepresentation of the events of the film. Even then, the film received massive acclaim and had a slow roll out.

On Oscar night, it received six Oscar nominations. It became the first film since The Greatest Show on Earth to win only Best Picture and another Oscar. Since the other was Best Original Screenplay (the first given out that evening), it was also the first and last award given out at the ceremony. Best Supporting Actor nominee Ruffalo became the second actor to be nominated for playing a Portuguese man (the other being Best Actor winner Spencer Tracy for Captain Courageous). It was the first independent film released by Open Road to win Best Picture. When adjusted for inflation, the film also became the second lowest grossing Best Picture winner in history with $39.2 million upon winning. The Hurt Locker remains the lowest with only $17 million in grosses. 

McCarthy's film ended up achieving what he had wanted. It spread awareness about the power of journalism. Also because of the subject matter, the Catholic Church felt more open to discussing these conflicts. It is too early to determine if Spotlight had a massive cultural impact on the journalism medium, but the desire for good reporting remains just as desirable. With the film predating the 2016 American presidential election, some parts of it seem like an omen of what hard work really achieves. Even then, the awareness that journalism and newsrooms are a dying medium will likely help to improve the circumstances for now, maybe even inspiring new generations to take up the profession as many did when watching a film that influenced Spotlight called All the President's Men.

Spotlight is a film about dedication to the truth. It doesn't matter how taboo the subject. As long as it's something that could influence positive change in the world, it's a story that needs to be told. With riveting performances and a quality script, the mundane task of interviewing people became an art form throughout the course of the film. It made journalism seem cool in ways that few films from around that time had done. Maybe it will inspire positive change for the profession. Maybe it's just an ode to a bygone era. It's too early to determine how much of these ideas falls in which box. For now, Spotlight is an optimistic look into what hard work can do. It can lead to a brighter future where troubles are more openly discussed. If that's not an achievement, then nothing is.


  1. "On Oscar night, it received six Oscar nominations. It became the first film since The Greatest Show on Earth to win only Best Picture and another Oscar. Since the other was Best Adapted Screenplay (the first given out that evening), it was also the first and last award given out at the ceremony."

    Spotlight won Best Original Screenplay, which was the first award handed out and immediately preceded The Big Short's victory in Best Adapted Screenplay.

    1. Thanks for catching that mistake. I fixed it.