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Spotlight: The art of perfecting the understated aesthetic in film

As actor Mark Ruffalo turns 54, a revisit to Spotlight, one of his best performances in investigative drama

Ryan Gomez
Nov 22, 2021
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Some of the most celebrated films of the years have been praised for their striking visuals, distinctive sound design, and dramatised portrayals of their characters. However, there are films that demand subtly, at times for their subject matter and at times for how certain films require their characters to be represented with more delicate arcs. However, for Spotlight director Tom McCarthy has incorporated both of these aspects. One would imagine such a film would be slow and devoid of style, and they would be right, but the film is intended to be as such. The grounded screenplay, nuanced performance by the cast and the manner in which the script has approached a true story as sensitive as the one in Spotlight makes for a riveting film that well and truly deserves the awards and accolades.

The story and the themes that are explored in the film significantly elevate this slow-burner to a much higher standard. The story itself, despite the dark and depressing subject matter it deals with, might not have necessarily turned the film into a success. It is simply because there is no engrossing police investigation, drawn-out courtroom drama, nor is there gore and violence. Instead, it focuses on the slow and methodical process involved in investigative journalism — a far cry from the often high octane investigative journalism depicted in films. Those who grew up reading or watching Tintin by Hergé would most certainly have very distinctive yet unrealistic notions about journalism. This speaks volumes of how well the film has been written, acted, directed, and edited.

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A story about the systematic protection of child-sex abusers in a parish in Boston was one that needed to be retold, and it was paramount that it be done right. The film puts the ‘spotlight’ on a very serious issue that is still allegedly a cause for concern in several parts of the globe. Even in this day and age, the media is reluctant to go after the Catholic Church, or any religious institution or powerful individuals. It is similar to the infamous Sir Jimmy Savile’s history of sexual abuse for decades. The British media were reluctant to publish a story about a man as influential as Savile in fear of The Law of Defamation being used against them. It was only after his death in 2011 that there was widespread coverage on the matter, as the Law of Defamation cannot be exercised if the individual has passed away. He is alleged to have sexually abused victims aged between 5 to 75 for over half a century.

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This is one of the reasons why the Boston Globe’s Spotlight deserves so much credit. Writer Josh Singer also deserves his due credit in the manner in which he has brought these characters to the silver screen — real-life characters from the revered investigative wing of the Boston Globe, Spotlight. The understated tone of the film gives it a similar aesthetic to that of a documentary, and the actors and the setting appear as if to be authentic archival footage. The cast, to their credit, essayed some of the best performances of their careers. For Michael Keaton, it was a subtle message that Birdman was not an anomaly and that his career was well and truly on course for a revival. Whereas Rachel McAdams had earned a reputation as a versatile actor by this time, but for Mark Ruffalo, despite his indie hits, Spotlight was the one that truly put him on the map as a serious actor. The narrative grips the audience with its realism and ushers them into a state of disbelief at the sheer number of children who fell victim in just a single parish.

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For 2021, the film is significant than ever before from a journalistic perspective. In a year in which two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, won Nobel Peace Prizes, is telling of an era that has become notorious for stifling the truth. The need for the fourth pillar of democracy to stand firm has never been so vital in recent memory.


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