Image Credits: Open Road Films

Spotlight: Character Vs. Story

By David Braga - Jan. 4, 2016, 7:00 AM

Here’s a brief disclaimer regarding my objectivity on Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight: I have lived in Boston for the past eight years, and was raised in a very Catholic household. The fact that I feel wrong using the term “lapsed” to describe the current state of my Catholicism probably means that I’m more Catholic than I’d like to think. So watching a film dramatization of the monstrous crimes committed by the church I was raised in, taking place in the city I live in, seemed, initially, like it might be a lot to take in.

But, as you probably know by now (given its Oscar front-runner status and entrenched position on many critics association year-end lists) Spotlight is a damn good, effective film, and perhaps as much of a worthy testament to the heroes and victims of the Boston Catholic Abuse Scandals as any fiction film ever could be. So, while I may have dreaded that the film would fall short of what it needed to do, I was pleasantly surprised not only by the fact that it did its job, but also how it did its job, specifically in terms of how much drama this dramatization used.

When we see a film based on a true story, we usually expect that certain areas of the truth will be compacted, stretched, or elaborated to milk them for drama. That’s all fine when the subject represents an idea that’s bigger than the actual story (see: how the internet has changed social power dynamics and challenged traditional ideas of masculinity in The Social Network), but when you’re working on a project like Spotlight, which tackles a very real, and very recent string of atrocities and cover-ups, going too far down the added-drama road can undermine the truth of what you’re trying to get at. Spotlight gets around this problem in an interesting way: it doesn’t really have any characters.

Yes, there are characters on the screen, and actors playing them, but for the most part, we only see them as newspeople, determined to do their job. Subplots are minimized (where they exist at all), and the personal lives of our reporter-heroes are more or less hidden from us. The closest we get to truly knowing these characters outside of the Boston Globe bullpen where they pull the story together is a scene of Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo talking on a porch, and even that doesn’t cut too deeply into the humanity of their characters.

Most of the time this would be a problem; character, after all, is usually how we invest in a movie’s story. But here, holding off on digging too deep into what the Globe reporters have going on in their personal lives keeps the crimes, the victims, and the exposure of the Church’s wrongdoing front and center. It doesn’t matter to us if Mark Ruffalo’s character mends fences with his estranged wife, or if McAdams finds a way to keep going to church. What matters is what happened, how it was covered up, and how the truth was finally brought to light. By not placing any character above the others, the victims—though they often appear only for a single scene or two—feel as important as the stars playing the lead roles. It’s an approach that makes the film feel much more like a documentary re-creation, only with better actors. It keeps the story in the forefront, and in a film like this, that is paramount.

To be fair, this does leave the film without any real “lead” roles. Michael Keaton seems to have the biggest part if only by default (he plays the Spotlight Team editor), but the screen time is split so evenly it doesn’t feel like any one person is carrying the movie. Likewise, a few roles get lost in the shuffle, most notably John Slattery, whose veteran newsman is hanging around the film doing not much of anything. Liev Schreiber, working as the new head-honcho at the Globe, disappears for long portions of the film, and ends up drawing the short straw when it comes time to talk about how important the work and the story is.

But as we watch Spotlight, none of this really matters to us, because we feel the weight of the truth taking over the picture. As someone who fretted over how the film might botch its storytelling or fail to do justice to the victims (or fall short in damning the villains), the minimization of character ensured that the story was told the right way, the proper way; the only way it could have been told. When I left the theater, I didn’t really care or think about what awards it might win, or where it would place on my personal (and still running) year-end poll. I thought about the victims, and how for once, they were done a small level of justice by the rest of the world. That doesn’t make Spotlight the best film of the year by any means, but it does mean that it’s one of the most important.

David Braga is a fiction and film writer from Northern Virginia. He lives with his wife in Boston, MA. You can read his movie reviews, stories, essays, and more at