Why ‘Spotlight’s’ Best Picture Win Is a Triumph of Excellence Over Ego

Spotlight Best Picture Win
A.M.P.A.S/REX/Shutterstock

It may take its name from the real-life Boston Globe investigating team, but “Spotlight” is in some respects a curious title for a film that so determinedly refuses to call attention to itself. The director and co-writer Tom McCarthy employs a drab, unadorned visual aesthetic, right down to a color palette redolent of cubicles and khakis. The signature image is of a reporter scribbling in a notebook, or narrowing her eyes at a spreadsheet. Save for Mark Ruffalo’s third-act call to arms, the performances remain at a low and steady simmer. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the year’s most scintillating or attention-grabbing filmmaking — which is precisely why its best picture Oscar win feels so right, and so unexpectedly gratifying.

It’s a meaningful victory on a number of levels. As producer Michael Sugar noted in his acceptance speech, it will do its part to call greater attention to the testimony of those who have endured grave abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church — and perhaps, too, it will help hold abusers and conspirators to ever higher standards of reform and accountability. It also offers rare and significant validation for the many journalists who have seen their proud profession become a downsized shadow of its former self, bereft of the resources that make such patient, vital investigative work possible. But social conscience alone is never a good enough reason to declare a movie the best of its class. No one disputes that “Spotlight” is an important movie, but its far more praiseworthy attribute is that it so skillfully avoids the trap of self-importance.

Within the ranks of the movie industry, the triumph of a film as graceful and unassuming as “Spotlight” feels like nothing less than a rebuke to the parade of self-regard that has come to define recent Oscar races. With a few welcome exceptions (“12 Years a Slave,” “The Hurt Locker”), the Academy has turned its celebratory gaze increasingly inward, falling into the dispiriting habit of honoring pictures tailored in its own image. I wasn’t among those who minded the victory of “The Artist,” a charming if somewhat trifling pastiche of silent-era Tinseltown, though by the time voters got around to honoring “Argo,” a glibly entertaining tale of Hollywood renegades staging a daring escape from Iran, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were getting stuck in the same, self-admiring groove.

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The trend reached an especially rancid nadir with last year’s picture and director wins for Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman,” which, despite its pretenses to satire, ultimately devoted itself to serving up a flattering portrait of the nobly struggling artist. Those of us who had long since grown weary of Inarritu’s sledgehammer theatrics let out a collective groan when he picked up his second directing Oscar in a row Sunday, this time for “The Revenant” — not a movie about showbiz, but one utterly in thrall to the industry’s most banal and self-aggrandizing notions of what constitutes Art. A few minutes later, Leonardo DiCaprio’s unsurprising best actor win seemed to seal the deal: Surely a best picture victory for this galumphing white elephant of a movie was inevitable.

But then, in a startling collective display of good taste, it wasn’t. Should we have seen “Spotlight” coming? That the final envelope was read by Morgan Freeman, an actor who counts God among his most persuasive roles, might have tipped us off to the possibility that good, even redemptive news was in store. And while many did stick to their gut instincts that “Spotlight” was the frontrunner all along, the fact remains that McCarthy’s movie — which came up notably empty with the producers and directors guilds — simply doesn’t possess the sort of chutzpah that typically heralds a winner. It has gravitas, but no swagger.

And in an industry that too often confuses arrogance with artistry, that’s mighty refreshing. This is a movie that understands, all the way down to its Boston bones, the grueling, unglamorous work that the Globe’s Spotlight team plowed through to get its story. A posture of complacency or self-satisfaction would be utterly antithetical to the drive and curiosity that are its characters’ lifeblood. “Spotlight” doesn’t bellow, harangue or manipulate; nor does it sensationalize, demonize or deify. It recognizes that humility, in art as well as in life, is not just attractive but authoritative. In every scene it exemplifies the calm intelligence of its subjects, and their mission becomes the movie’s own: the dogged, no-nonsense pursuit of truth and excellence, and a rigorous commitment to the art of storytelling. How wise of the Academy to follow suit.

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  1. drush76 says:

    “Spotlight” is a very good movie and one of the better films of 2015. But I would have voted for “The Revenant”. It had both substance and style.

  2. legfan says:

    Spotlight was awful, that’s why it won best picture. The worst, most uninteresting movie of every year, especially the most pretentious, wins best picture. The Revenant was saved from the historical pile at the very last moment. It is a masterpiece.

    • Bob Pompousity says:

      You truly have no idea what a good movie is. You are criticizing a movie for having a slow pac, while the greatest films of all time have a slow pace(the Godfather,Chinatown,ect..)So if you are just going to praise a movie because it plays at breakneck speed praise something like “Mad Max:FF” instead of an overrated movie that only won Leo an Oscar because they didn’t give it to him in Blood Diamond, the Departed, Django Unchained, or something of his that was actually good.

  3. I just finished watching “Spotlight” on ATT’s U-Verse On Demand, and I have to admit that Justing Chang couldn’t be more right: the movie is austere, unpretentious, straight to the point; no flashing lights, bright colors or bombastic sounds. Only one moderate rant about the importance of the investigation and one short praise to one member of the Spotlight Team (“keep doing your work, Mr. Rezendes”). That exercise on modesty succeeds in grabbing the audience’s attention for two hours, following the journalistic investigation step by step through all the difficulties, pressures, and subtle intimidations, realizing at every turn that the abuses committed by one priest are just the tip of an iceberg of horrible scandals and many perpetrators, all covered-up by the Church and the Police.

  4. Mirn Serb says:

    Visit http://imgur.com/tnztiNp if you want to Watch Spotlight Full Movie HD, no buffer, no ads, support with any subtitle :D

  5. Sue McHugh says:

    Thank you for this insightful analysis and for recognizing the movie making masturbation that is The Revenant

  6. tom2 says:

    Mr. Chang, thank you for stating what many viewers/reviewers were too embarrassed to say. The Revenant is indeed prodigious filmmaking; AIG is indeed a brilliant filmmaker. And yet…The Revenant is lacking enough plot to sustain it 2 hours and 36 minute running time, there is nothing surprising or thrilling about the ending, and it’s emotional core is lacking for many of us, and dare I say, the film is boring at times. Best pictures should be films that hopefully not only advances the art form (which Spotlight does not), but more importantly gives us an emotional ride that resonates a lifetime. Perhaps the emotional core is why Rocky beat Taxi Driver, or Ordinary People beat Raging Bull (yikes). But certainly DeCaprio’s Glass character is nowhere near the resonance of a Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta. Finally, I would argue that to make a film about human relationships (Annie Hall and Spotlight) that capture a time and place are the rarest and most difficult filmmaking achievement. I’m still surprised Birdman beat Boyhood. In 20 years, I would argue, Boyhood will still be an amazing time capsule of growing up in early 20th century America, and Birdman will be a dazzling visual achievement and still lacking a compelling emotional core. Oh, and George Miller should have won best director; brilliant, virtuoso filmmaking.

  7. Thomas says:

    This article is heavily dissappointing. AGI is finally receiving his long deserved credit for being a pioneer in the filmmaking industry. Every film he creates takes risks and stretches what a film can do to an audience, absolutely every one. A film is supposed to make bold decisions and constantly push the limits of what a film is defined as, and AGI consistently does that, not just for the sake of doing it, but because it helps to drive the plot and enhance the story. He’s been doing this since his very first film, and it’s been a while but he’s finally receiving the recognition he deserves on a much larger scale. I would argue that the “theatrics”, you said AGI is known for, are the exact things that every film needs.

    Now I don’t condone anything the Academy Awards stand for, how do you judge one film as being better than another film, and one performance as being worse than another, the whole system doesn’t quite make sense, but unfortunately, it does have a global following and the masses do look to it for guidance in what is good and what is not. Since this is the case, I have to say I do get excited when someone like AGI receives some commendation. This means that the masses are starting to view films in a different way, starting to look outside the box, as opposed to the same cookie-cutter Hollywood formula that has won time and time again. Finally, we are reaching an age where films are being directed from the heart, and with that, (I do hate to use this word) art is becoming more prominent. Filmmakers who create films from their hearts are beginning to be recognized. I believe Steve McQueen is one of these, and to see 12 Years a Slave win is exciting. It makes me feel so good to ask people during conversations, “Have you seen his other films? They’re just as sharp and clean and poignant and maintain that smooth style of filmmaking you liked in 12 Years a Slave!” And people who spend their weekends watching straight-forward Marvel films are actually being offered something new.

    That’s what I love about AGI. Now, he is offering something new to the masses.

    I don’t think Spotlight is a bad film. I enjoyed it and found the drive to be quite energetic, however, I feel like the script and the actors made that happen. I saw nothing new in regards to how the story was told. This film relied heavily on the content, which, thankfully, was riveting in itself. If you were to take that away, you would be left with the first chapter of a ‘how to make films’ book. With the Revenant, or any of his films, if you were to take away the story, everything else is superior enough to maintain the film, and completely vice versa. What I’m saying is every single aspect of The Revenant served the story. The score, the performances, the cinematography, the script, everything had one common cohesive path, and then some. It takes a pioneer director like Innaritu to bring all of these elements together and tell a story in a creative way that still will engage an audience. With a victory such as ‘Spotlight’, we take steps backwards in recognizing good art. I really wish you would reconsider writing him off as pretentious, and perhaps start to realize that every little thing he puts into a film is for a reason, and it all comes from the heart. Also, please don’t say that “Spotlight” was any sort of artful, elegant filmmaking. Please, for the sake of the advancement of cinema.

    • PICturePlay says:

      “..With a victory such as ‘Spotlight’, we take steps backwards in recognizing good art.”.

      You are the exact example of people, whom Justin correctly pointed, who often confuse arrogance with artistry; pretentious films with art house.

      Indeed, Spotlight is an elegantly and excellently written, directed, designed, acted, and edited film. Its intentional subtlety is an evidence of how masterfully this film crafted was.

      Spotlight is equal with Mad Max Fury Road’s greatness, but in the opposite scale. Many many years to come people will keep on studying and analyzing Spotlight and Mad Max Fury Road, and be amazed with their greatness.

      While, Revenant, will be an open eye for people of how ovvlerrated Innaritu and DiCaprio was.

      • jane cottingham says:

        My husband and I just saw Spotlight, Both raised Catholic. Both thrilled that a movie was so bold as
        to reveal the century old crimes of the church. You are so wrong. This was a gift to all of us who hate
        and despise having been raised Catholic.

  8. Tom says:

    The 2008 financial collapse hurt far more people than the Catholic church sex scandal but the latter is much more personal to a lot of people and especially actors who can relate.

  9. Tell It says:

    I found Spotlight to be a rather pedestrian, paint-by-numbers drama that pales in comparison to other journalism stories such as “All the President’s Men” and “Absence of Malice.” My favorite nominees were The Big Short and The Martian, which were much more fun and interesting, both dramatically and visually.

  10. The beauty of Spotlight lies in its dramatic construction and pacing.
    It is a well told story that unfolds in a way that draws you in.
    As repulsive as the story is, it takes you by the hand and pulls you along as it unfolds.
    Just an excellent piece of craft all round IMO.

  11. Shawna waldron says:

    This might be the first Variety article that makes sense.

  12. Justin, this is so disappointing coming from you. My name is Jorge Avila Andrade and I’m a film critic too, a mexican, and I used to liked your work a lot, but this editorial make assumptions in the sense as if no other filmmakers had an ego. Every single film director has a great ego, everyone from Fellini to Truffaut to Hitchcock to Spielberg.
    I liked Spotlight a lot. I’m not angry about Spotlight winning for Best Picture because I think it’s message is more transcendent that The Revenant’s. And more being myself from a country where Catholic abuses remain without punishment. But you are judging Iñárritu because of his personality and not for his directorial work. So, you’re not being objective. Spotlight’s thematic is more profound, but as a whole, I think The Revenant is a superior movie in almost every way. But well, that’s just my humble opinion. Keep doing a great job as you usually does.

    • Justin Chang says:

      Jorge, thanks for your kind, chastising words (which I’m honestly touched by). As a critic, you know that none of this is ever objective. I’m not opposed to ego or ambition or visionary grandeur in the cinema — without it, we wouldn’t have Godard or Altman or Welles or Kubrick or Haneke or Fincher (and the list goes on), and my own favorite Hollywood movie of the year, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” probably wouldn’t exist. Nor am I judging Iñárritu for his personality — which, never having met the man, I have very little sense of. I’ve admired and defended his films in the past, “21 Grams” and “Babel” included, and that he’s a gifted filmmaker is beyond dispute.

      But for me the beauty of “The Revenant” is continually undermined by something — I can only call it arrogance — that I feel emanating from the screen. What it lacks, I think, is the humility, the sense of grace and fragility, that you get from filmmakers like Malick and Tarkovsky (both of whom Iñárritu is clearly influenced by) who are interested in exploring man’s relationship to the natural world. Clearly it’s worked for many, yourself included, so fair enough.

  13. riot says:

    i disagree. this nomination was yet another in a long line of stale drama nominations.

  14. Spike says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, Justin

  15. cadavra says:

    Integrity triumphs over egotistical self-indulgence, at least for Best Picture. There may be hope for the Academy yet.

  16. Luis says:

    Justin thank you for your lucid and brave point of view and for paising what is really worth praising: I hope more profesional film critics and the industry in general learnd to see the difference between good cinema and pretentious cinema and filmmaking.

  17. foxmoy6 says:

    Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has become the first repeat winner in 65 years at the Academy Awards by taking home the best director Oscar for The Revenant , his brutal period piece. With this win, he has entered the history books, becoming the first director since 1950 to bag the best director trophy two years in a row.

  18. Kayla says:

    How definitive you are about what is a good movie is “rancid”. A film being polarized, does NOT make it a bad film. Look back and see all the films that weren’t universally enjoyed at the time. I think it’s great to see people willing to not pick a super easy consensus choice.

    People are clearly still very annoyed that Birdman was “over-rewarded” last year. And while I wasn’t a fan, I don’t have the overwhelming bias against him that Boyhood supporters do.

    AGI absolutely deserved director and The Revenant is film where if you go into it with an open mind, there is a lot to take away from it. Spotlight is wonderful. It is also very cut and dry. I have had great conversations about interpretations and morals in The Revenant with people who usually don’t go deep into film.

  19. Cletus van Damme says:

    Has Innaritu stole your girlfriend or let you wait 6 hours for an interview? Your thinly disguised agenda is getting so ridiculous that a responsible chief film critic wouldn’t let you write any more about him. For your own good. How can someone be so right about one thing (Fury Road) and so wrong about another thing (Revenant). Fury Road might be even better but both are powerful films that will stand the test of time and will be watched and discuessed among film lovers when Spotlight (still a very good movie, but you can get that level of storytelling, acting and directing just as good or even better in TV these days) will be long forgotten.

  20. PICturePlay says:

    I’m so agree with you about Revenant, Leo, and Innaritu.. hahahhahaha

  21. PICturePlay says:

    I LOVE YOU JUSTIN!!

    I also stick to my feeling that Spotlight or Mad Max should win Best Picture. I would be so happy of one of them won. When Morgan Freeman read, “Spotlight!” I volunteeraly leapt on my feet, scream, and shed tears of joy.

    Many many people dont see its intentional subtlety as a masterful work. And I’m so so happy and on cloud nine to know that my beloved critic like you has the same thought like me.

    Regards from Indonesia ;)

  22. damian says:

    What a BS. stop hating people.

  23. Lara says:

    I don`t think The Revenant is a great film by any stretch but you and Tapley have been absolutely brutal about Inarritu all season.It may not be a film with enormous depth but it is a beautiful one.

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