Movie review: “Spotlight”

In keeping with my family’s longstanding tradition of guiltily dragging ourselves to see Oscar winners several months after their actual release, I saw “Spotlight” last night. And I’m placed in the odd position of having no idea what to say about it, because for long stretches of the movie, I forgot that I was not watching a documentary. “Spotlight” is the kind of movie where your forebrain dimly recognizes Stanley Tucci when he first appears onscreen (“Oh yeah… that guy…”) then immediately discards the knowledge that this is an actor until the credits roll, at which point you turn to your companion and say, “Did you realize that was Stanley Tucci?” Which, for a movie also starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery (“Hey, there’s Roger Sterling,” the brain pipes up before being promptly shushed), is particularly impressive. Part of this actor-amnesia is due to the movie’s deliberately downtrodden aesthetic, all dingy sets, horrible costumes, glamour-repellent hair and makeup—I’ve never seen Michael Keaton’s neck-skin look quite so pebbly, or Mark Ruffalo’s hair look quite so bad. And part of it is that when you are watching a movie about the Catholic Church’s deliberate, systematic, decades-long and ongoing concealment of a massive epidemic of child molestation, you’ll just be too goddamn mad to notice you’re watching famous actors in a movie.

And that rage is a problem, because righteous, impotent anger both robs critics of objectivity (“Spotlight”, while very good, had no business being awarded Best Picture in a year with “Mad Max” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and also repels all but the most socially responsible viewers, the kind of sober, NPR-listening souls who can be counted on to obediently file into “Blackfish” and “Super Size Me” and “An Inconvenient Truth”. And this is the kind of movie that people beyond the Birkenstock crowd should see, because it’s well-acted and gripping, and because in this, the Year of Our Lord 2016, we could all use a reminder that the only appropriate attitude towards unquestioned authority is deep, baleful suspicion. The movie ends with a simple coda, white print on a black screen, telling viewers that since the Globe’s story broke, similar scandals have been unveiled in the following cities… In the pause between that frame and the next, I mentally braced myself for a scrolling list. Would it be ten? Twelve? Twenty-five cities?

It was a lot more than that.

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