Winner of the 2016 Oscar for Best Screenplay AND Best Film! Everyone seems to be surprised by the decision, no one more than me. But as I think about it, there may be a deeper explanation behind this Oscar pick.


Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

208 min.     R

Because of the controversial subject matter of this film I want to make each portion of my review distinct and clear. First, the plot:

There’s no need to worry about spoilers. If you’ve been alive since the turn of the century you are aware of the main idea of this movie.

The Story

The movie takes place in 2001. A new boss (Liev Schreiber) arrives to The Boston Globe from Miami. Readership is down and he is interested in finding ways to shake things up, whether it means different stories or simply cutting back on staff. He tasks the “Spotlight” group with looking further into a priest molestation case the Globe only briefly covered in the past.

Spotlight is a group of four (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) that do in depth stories, sometimes taking over a year to fully research and report on.

As they look further into the case they start seeing patterns that lead them to uncover 90 molestation cases against Roman Catholic priests in Boston alone. The movie focuses on collecting the evidence necessary to come forward with such shocking claims in the overwhelmingly Irish Catholic Boston area.

In the end they are able to get their story to the front page and the rest is history, a very painful and troubling history.

The Structure

For such a straightforward and simple story, this was a very difficult movie to follow. I really felt like I needed to watch it twice just to keep up with the tremendous amount of names and titles. This movie felt very weighed down by all the court cases and church government necessary for the story to be told. For those not familiar with the elaborate hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, you may want to do some study before watching this.

The name-heavy plot really confuses me when I hear that this movie won for best screenplay. You would think they might want to streamline the narrative just so people could keep up better. The name “Cardinal Law” came up often. Now this movie deals with a lot of Roman Catholic lawyers, officials, and Catholic rules, so I wasn’t sure if that title was referring to some type of law or if there was an actual person who was a Cardinal, whose last name is “Law”. Turns out it was the latter.

I really expected a lot of tension and a suspenseful build to the climax that was already known. Unfortunately the first third of the film was incredibly dull, and the slow build was too slow. I think there was a really great story in all this but the execution really failed. And that is where I think most of the blame lies… the director.

Tom McCarthy is a difficult fellow. He seems to have found a niche in writing and directing very low key, almost mundane, documentary-style dramas. He did write the story for Pixar’s Up. I know a lot of people enjoy that one, for me and my four children it’s our least favorite Pixar movie of the bunch! But Tom’s career as a writer/director has been short and I think a movie of this magnitude shows it. In a story where we all know the outcome, so the build to it is essential, I think the ball was dropped.

But where this movie is a success, and perhaps why it pulled in a surprise victory, is its portrayal of the Roman Catholic church and all her sins.

 The Sin

The Roman Catholic church has a very similar quality to the original Nightmare on Elm Street. The pedophilia and cover up is a hazy, potentially singular event that isn’t given much thought, much like Freddy Kruger in that first film. This is incredibly ironic as the Elm Street creator originally thought of Kruger as a pedophile but because a high-profile molestation case in the news at the time, he decided to distance himself from that topic and not add unnecessary baggage.

There is a palpable looming quality to the Roman Catholic presence in the Boston area. And several highly graphic interviews by the Spotlight reporters add bits of fuel to this uncomfortable fire. While the discovery of the truth isn’t a terribly exciting build up, you do become more and more uncomfortable as time goes on. And subtle scenes like a counselor walking into a room to speak with victims that are all under the age of 10 leave you wanting to get up and leave the room.

I questioned briefly if this movie was some sort of pointed attack on the Roman Catholic church and as time has gone on I think that is more and more likely. With such little attention to the movie’s narrative, look, and structure but very precise jabs at the Catholic system leads me to believe that there was an agenda behind this. And as Protestant who isn’t too pleased with how Roman Catholic leadership has handled this massive scandal, part of me says “Ya! Go get ’em!”

The difficult part about such sentiments is that the Roman Catholic church has done an excellent job as commandeering the word “Church” itself. So much so that people often use the word “Church”, “Catholic Church” and “Roman Catholic Church” synonymously.

I make every attempt to specifically say “Roman Catholic” church because truthfully the word ‘Catholic’ means “Universal”, so to say Catholic Church would properly refer to all members of the Body of Christ, Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. 

2001 was a time when the secular or non-religious world started to double down on combining all religions into one broad category, leaving no room for theological or historical distinctions. Richard Dawkins, famed biologist and Anti-theist has said in the past that the attack on 9/11 was an important time for him in seeing just how dangerous religious belief can be. So while part of me stands in agreement, the other part feels frustrated because this scandal cast a bad light on all forms of Christianity. Many people still think of the Roman Catholic church as simply- The Church.

And this movie is very much so aimed at no other place than the Roman Catholic church, from the Pope on down. Mark Ruffalo’s performance seemed particularly highlighted in scenes of disgust and anger. He stood out as the most indignant. So it comes as no surprise that the morning of the Oscars, Ruffalo and McCarthy were at a protest in front of an L.A. Cathedral with a group of victims of molestation by priests.

There are many conversations to be had after viewing this film. And for that I appreciate it. This is an on-going issue that the current Pope still speaks about. And with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation coming up in 2017, discussions about Roman Catholicism were coming no matter what. The fact that this mediocre film won for Best Film and Screenplay tells me there is still plenty of anger in the air and much more dialogue (and action) is needed. I will leave you with a piece of the acceptance speech for Best Film at the 2016 Oscars:

“This film gave a voice to survivors. And this Oscar amplifies that voice,  which we hope will become a choir, that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”


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