The Production: 4.5/5
“All these neat, little houses and all these nice, little streets. It’s hard to believe that something’s wrong with some of those little houses.”
“No, it isn’t”
-Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) & Woodward (Robert Redford) in All The President’s Men (1976)
“You’d better take a good look, because I’m getting two things: pissed off and curious”
-Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) in The Insider (1999)
“We got two stories here. A story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry.
Which story do you want us to write? Because we’re writing one of them.”
-Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) in Spotlight (2015)
I’ll just start right out by saying that Spotlight is, hands down, one of the two best movies of 2016. (It shares that honor with The Big Short and we’ll just have to see what happens at the Oscars in a week and a half to know how they do.) It is easily the best journalism movie we’ve had come down the pike since The Insider in 1999, and it can easily stand alongside the classic All The President’s Men. Without spoiling anything, I’ll note that the story follows the Boston Globe’s 2002 coverage of the Catholic Church scandal, which not only up-ended the city of Boston but sent shockwaves around the world. The movie is tightly written and directed by Tom McCarthy, and features strong performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci, standing out among a gifted ensemble. It’s a movie that can give you hope about the power of the press, even while it may shock you with its revelations. For the strength of the movie alone, this Blu-ray is Highly Recommended.
SPOILERS: The best journalism movies usually rely on a secret being revealed. The bigger the secret, the better the story. This was the case with The Insider, which makes a devastating case about Big Tobacco’s inner workings and the lengths it would go to cover them up. It was the case with All The President’s Men, which starts with a simple break-in and slowly has the journalists tease out the information until we can see the bones of a devastating cover-up. With Spotlight, the situation is far more insidious. Because it’s happening in plain sight. And what makes all three of these movies even creepier is that they are solidly based on actual fact. In the specific case of Spotlight, we follow the work of the “Spotlight” team inside the Boston Globe as they slowly uncover the pieces of the priest/child abuse scandal. The power of the film is that the filmmakers understand this is a violation of the most basic part of a community – the trust that families place in their church, that people place in their pastors. To be a child who has been abused by a priest, or the parent of that child is to have one’s entire faith lost. It wasn’t simply the bodies of the people that were abused here – it was their spirits.
MORE SPOILERS: To the credit of the actors in Spotlight, pretty much everyone plays their parts in an understated manner, letting the horror of the facts speak for themselves. (That said, Stanley Tucci does put on a flashy turn as attorney Mitchell Garabedian, but it works in context.) Michael Keaton is actually stronger in this movie than he was in last year’s Birdman. To be honest, Keaton is stronger here than he’s ever been before – just in the quiet authority he exudes as Walter Robinson. Mark Ruffalo is also strong here, although his character’s distinct accent can be a bit hard to understand at times. As the reporters learn more and more about the scandal, and the mire gets deeper, there is a palpable sense of growing unease. First we’re talking about one priest, who apparently was being moved around from parish to parish to keep the situation quiet. Then the reporters realize they’re looking at over ten priests. Then the number jumps above 90. And keeps climbing. As a grim sidenote to the situation, one of the reporters is shown discovering that one of the halfway houses where these priests were sheltered is actually around the corner from his own home. (This is again based on the actual facts that happened with the reporters.) And even when the story breaks and you expect a moment of triumph for the reporters, the movie refuses to allow it. Instead, the reporters are given a quiet acknowledgement that they need to stay on it, as their phones ring off their hooks with readers offering leads of even more abuse situations within the Catholic Church. For the final punchline, the viewer is shown a massive list of cities around the world where additional scandals have been discovered and reported since the Globe broke the story. The sheer size of the list is heartbreaking.
SPOILERS CONTINUE: I also must acknowledge that the movie makes a point not to shy away from any of the difficult questions that come up. There is a direct acknowledgement that the Globe could be criticized for having an outsider like Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) direct the team to dig into this story. There’s even an acknowledgment that Catholics could resent a Jewish editor ordering this story to be done. And there’s one situation that I’m not sure the movie handles as deftly as the others – it’s the reason I’m giving the movie 4 ½ stars rather than 5. As the movie progresses, we are repeatedly told that the Globe ALREADY had this information but sat on it for years. The matter is brought up to Robinson several times and he seems to be curious as to who knew about the scandal and let it lie. But in the final moments, we’re suddenly told it’s Robinson himself who knew about this. Keaton does the best he can with this scene, but the whole revelation is odd. If in fact he already knew about the problem, then his entire arc in the movie should have been of a different shape. That said, the one misstep is not enough to derail the movie, and the sheer power of the overall material is enough to keep the viewer floored all the way to the list of shame that is the last thing we see before the credits roll.
The Blu-ray of Spotlight contains the movie in solid high definition for picture and sound, and again, on the movie’s own merits is Highly Recommended. But I need to warn viewers there’s almost no bonus features here. You’d think there would be a documentary on the issue, an extensive interview with the reporters, a commentary, something. Instead, all we get are three short featurettes, totaling just about 12 ½ minutes of material. For a high profile release like this, I’d frankly expect something more in-depth.
Spotlight will be released to home theater viewers on the 23rd, just in time for the Oscar ceremony in another week. The packaging includes Blu-ray and SD DVD editions of the movie, both containing the same materials. Instructions for downloading a digital copy of each movie are included on an insert in the packaging.
3D Rating: NA
Spotlight is presented in a 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer (avg 34 mbps) that accurately depicts the array of Canadian locations and a few Boston landmarks that were used for the filming of the movie. The movie has a grainy look, which is appropriate to the material.
Spotlight is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (avg 3.3 mbps, going up to 4.0 mbps in the big scenes). As one would expect, this is a dialogue-centric mix. The movie is a fairly quiet one, tending to avoid sweeping vistas of sound in favor of quieter atmospherics.
Special Features: 1.5/5
Spotlight comes with three short featurettes as its entire complement of bonus features. The same featurettes are available on both the Blu-ray and the DVD editions. Both editions contain previews for other releases – the difference being that the Blu-ray uses online previews while the DVD has them on the actual disc.
Uncovering The Truth: A Spotlight Team Roundtable (6:33, 1080p AVC) – The real Boston Globe reporters are assembled here for a group discussion about this story. The featurette intercuts between several clips from the movie and soundbites from the reporters as they discuss their work. There’s one interesting bit where the guys discuss how computers and spreadsheets made the difference in this story – even though this was happening in 2001 and one would think that all these guys already had that technology…
Spotlight: A Look Inside (2:30, 1080p AVC) – This featurette is so short that half of the time is taken up with the movie clips. The remainder consists of the usual soundbites.
The State of Journalism (3:14, 1080p) – The final short featurette addresses the dying industry of newspapers and print journalism. But it’s so short that they’re barely able to even start the discussion before it’s over. And once again, I have to note that there is NO POINT to having multiple tiny featurettes when everything could go on a single piece. If you cut out the duplicative movie clips between the three featurettes, you’d probably have a 10 minute featurette, which is still really slight for this movie, but is more honest in terms of how much real material was presented here.
DVD Edition – An SD DVD of the movie is included in the packaging, containing the movie in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound (@448 kbps) and the same short featurettes. The DVD also holds a Previews menu, containing trailers for the following Open Road productions: Rosewater, Nightcrawler, End of Watch, Pawn Sacrifice, Trash, Dope, Rock the Kasbah and Mr. Robot Season One.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the 2D edition of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film and special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
Spotlight is one of the very best movies of 2015, and on its own strengths as a movie, it is Highly Recommended for Purchase. The movie takes an unflinching look at how Boston Globe reporters uncovered the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal, and the effect can be overwhelming at times. The Blu-ray offers the movie in solid high definition. But don’t expect much in the way of extras here.