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.
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.