Christian Movie Review
That profoundly insightful line from the film “Spotlight” (delivered by the always superb Stanley Tucci) sums up the vantage point of the film. “Spotlight” tells the true story of the Boston Globe’s historical 2002 exposé of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal that rocked Boston and shocked the world. It stars some familiar faces: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber (one of my favorite actors), Billy Crudup, John Slattery, and a very deep bench of supporting cast members who delivered remarkably good performances, even for the characters who only had a few lines in one scene or two.
Although I’m not Catholic (I’m Protestant), I did wonder: is this a movie that uses the massive moral failure of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal to attack all Christians or all religious people in sort of a malicious, faith-bashing way?
I’d say no, definitely not. That line at the top of the article gives a glimpse of why.
Sure, there are plenty of people who are always looking for a reason to hate on the Catholic Church (or on any Christians or religious people in general), and such folks might use this film as an excuse to malign any and all Catholics within earshot; but this incredibly well-crafted investigate thriller is not (if you weigh it carefully) a malicious hit piece. It doesn’t really come across that way — like some anti-religious propaganda piece wherein the journalists are made to be the heroic knights who ride off to vanquish that wicked dragon called Religion. Even the journalists themselves don’t escape the weighty culpability that befalls Boston for this travesty. And in the midst of all of it, the film stares with unblinking, sad, and sometimes very angry eyes at the nauseating, horrifying failures of an entire community, both religious and non-religious.
I’ll get to all that in more detail in the “Worldview” section, and I’ll also explain why this movie, as far as film craft, is one of the best investigative thrillers to come out in recent years. It’s just a very well-made movie in every area, from acting to writing to cinematography. We’ll be hearing plenty about this film at the Oscars, I’m sure. (Michael Keaton is on a roll, as far as his picking of quality projects.)
But first let’s cover the Parental Guidance Content in case you’re wondering what R-rated content is in the film before you consider seeing it:
Parent Guidance Content at a Glance for this R Movie…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: None.
Sexual Content/Nudity: Nothing seen, but in several scenes of dialogue, victims of the sex abuse scandal describe their horrific sex abuse experiences in explicit detail to a journalist. The journalist tells the victims not to sanitize their descriptions because people need to know the truth of how terrible and shocking it was.
Language: A consistent scattering of the usual variety of swear words throughout the film. No f-words that I can remember.
Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking: Some light social drinking (i.e. friends sharing a beer).
Entertainment Value & Film Craft
Many of the scenes have a powerful sort of awkward realism to them — more like the way real life feels. Tiny hints of shakiness in the camera work (but it’s not nauseating). Unflattering wide shots under the Boston Globe’s office lighting where we’d expect more dramatic, glitzy Hollywood-esque close-ups. Natural, sometimes imperfect rhythms in the dialogue where characters accidentally interrupt each other (like it would be in real life) — i.e. clumsily speaking over one another, and then awkwardly stopping. All of it adds a sense of inclusion because it feels like you’re witnessing something real. You don’t feel like the movie is treating you like an audience member at a movie theater who has paid to see a shiny Hollywood show. The film treats you as a fellow journalist, and you have been brought on to witness a very complex investigation and take notes. The film respects the moviegoer, in other words, and doesn’t talk down to you.
And as I mentioned in the introduction, the acting across the board, from the most minor characters to the Big Names, is just stellar. There’s moments of visual/directorial brilliance too, like the subtle addition of a father pushing his child on a swing in the background of a shot just as a voice-over is talking about the vulnerability of the child victims in the sex abuse cases.
That being said, I couldn’t help but notice some of my favorite Hollywood writing cliches. They don’t detract from the movie; I just find them funny. For example, screenwriters in Hollywood love doing this for some reason: they always make you think that some important tidbit of info is going to be said in a tense conversation between two characters, but then no one really says anything outright. So the first character walks away and just as they’re about to exit the room the other character suddenly turns and says, “Oh, and just so you know…(and then they finally say the dramatic info that the scene was building towards).” Love it. It’s just so melodramatic. (I think it would be hilarious if we all started doing this in our actual day-to-day conversations.)
Worldview & Themes of Redemption
The film paints a complex picture. It’s not a cartoonish, black and white portrayal of the problem with a neat arrangement of villain and hero. Everyone has blood on their hands. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (played with a perfectly meticulous, melancholic introversion by Liev Schreiber) makes this observation to his journalists who have just realized that everyone in the city, including the Globe, has helped enable the scandal: “Sometimes we forget that we spend most of our time stumbling in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.”
The film has some clear themes of redemption. And when I say themes of redemption I mean story arcs in which characters have serious flaws or very intense wounds that have gone unhealed, but circumstances eventually help them overcome those flaws or find healing. We see victims who, after years of battling the demons of their traumatic abuse, find a measure of personal redemption and peace — or perhaps more like retribution — when the truth finally goes public on a very large, loud platform to the world. We also see the personal redemption of one of the journalists who helps
the story see the light of day — something that he had failed to do years prior when he had a similar chance.
And two of the journalists who helped expose the scandal mention that they go to church occasionally. (One of them goes to a Catholic church with a relative; the other goes to a Protestant church.)
Also, an ally to the Boston Globe team — a psychologist who gives them some crucial information that helps them succeed in exposing the scandal — is actually a devout Catholic. When the journalist asks the Catholic how he can still be a devout Catholic when the Church has become an active enemy trying to silence him, he gives an eye-opening reply: (paraphrased) “The Church is an institution of men, and it will pass away. It is temporary. But my faith is in the eternal. I keep the two separate.” In other words, because a group of deeply flawed human beings drags the name of Jesus in the mud and misrepresents Him with their actions does not mean that a person should turn away from faith in Christ and what He claimed about Himself in the Gospels.
Conclusion: “Spotlight” is a Deeply Sobering, Riveting Investigate Thriller
It’s more than just a movie about one of the biggest exposé news stories in history. “Spotlight” presents a textbook example of the saying, “Evil wins when good people do nothing.” In truth, this movie is a sobering look at the potential for corruption in every one of us — that in all of us there lies that fatal temptation to “look the other way” when the price of exposing something we know is wrong is too inconvenient and too much of a threat to our comfortable lives.
The terrible truth is that this kind of corruption — i.e. a large group of people choosing to ignore an evil instead of confronting it head on — tends to be the natural bent of human nature if left alone (with exceptions, of course). Such corruption is so easy for our fallen natures to embrace because it is self-centered and it’s the path of least resistance.
“Spotlight” does a brilliant job of reminding us that if we don’t speak up when we see something we know is wrong, then we become participants in the ruination of others. And in the case of the horrific Boston sex abuse scandal, not only does it rob someone of their life, it robs them of their faith — faith in God, yes, but also faith in their community.
My rating for “Spotlight”: [usr 8.5] (See my notes at the bottom of this article about the rating scale.)
[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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