I have yet to decide whether I’ll be eating Milk Duds or Sour Patch Kids while I watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens in theaters. The Venn Diagram of people who file W-9 forms and know which color (red) Sour Patch Kid has the best aftertaste is admittedly small, but that won’t really matter when I’m sitting in that theater. As soon as an attendant hands back my Star Wars ticket stub, I’m granted the luxury of leaving things like taxes, adulthood, and responsibility in the hallway.
Immediately, individual and collective problems are galaxies away from me.
Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s telling of how the Boston Globe uncovered atrocities in the Catholic Church, was probably the best film of 2015. I didn’t bring candy to my seat when I saw it in theaters. It didn’t occur to me, like how it wouldn’t occur to me to wear a basketball jersey to a job interview.
So I wonder: If we see The Force Awakens to escape reality does that mean we see Spotlight to come to terms with it?
Star Wars might be the most famous example of fantasy escapism in modern history. Its seventh installment comes at a time when there’s plenty to want to get away from. A radical terrorist group has the whole world living in fear. Mass shootings have become commonplace. A reality star who campaigns with hateful and offensive diatribes has a seemingly realistic chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world.
The Force Awakens sends us to two different worlds: the world of Star Wars where Jedi Knights fly spaceships and the world of nostalgia where we look back on a specific time and romanticize it for not being now. We’ll already know some characters and we’ll be introduced to new ones, and the story will go on for our sake. The Dark Side will once again materialize itself. The Force will apparently wake up.
We’re supposed to be offered escapes during the Christmas season. We’re allowed the comfort of knowing that Leia never forced Han to sell his old ride or his favorite vest. New creatures, droids, and villains will provide us with a sense of wonder. It’s up to J.J. Abrams to effectively nail the conflict and drama of the story, but even falling short of expectations would effectively spark thousands (millions?) of backseat filmmakers who deep down understand that, when it comes to a franchise like this, critiquing the product is ultimately part of the larger product being sold. All of these things are distractions, and don’t we deserve them?
Spotlight takes us back in time 12 years, but it only pulls us closer to the world’s problems. The movie follows the four-person “Spotlight” team of the Boston Globe in the entirety of their investigation of the Catholic Church. The film takes on the life and feel of the story as it develops; when the Spotlight team is trying to determine if Cathloic priests are abusing children it feels like a small movie that maybe you heard some good things about. When their focus shifts on trying to figure out how many Catholic priests are molesting children and how far the cover up reaches it suddenly feels like a colossal film, the type we might see a teaser trailer for 18 months before its release.
The stakes are high in Spotlight and every scene is pleading for its characters to expose real evil, perpetrated on innocent children. The story’s arc doesn’t have much to do with defeating evil. A victory comes from acknowledging it.
So, the question again: If we see The Force Awakens to escape, would we merely see Spotlight to become educated by attractive actors?
That notion might be giving us too much credit. It’s all the more relaxing to sit down in front of the new Star Wars movie with some popcorn, take a deep breath, and think about how we earned this two-hour break from reality after the year we’ve had. The truth is, though, that we spend almost every spare moment we have partaking in escapism. It’s why we go to bars, play or watch sports, read literature, glue ourselves to a Netflix screen, or go on vacation. Any time not spent trying to fix our problems (personal or societal) is spent trying to forget about them.
On a recent Channel 33 podcast, Bill Simmons implied that the impact of the Boston Globe’s real life story on the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal was partially diminished in Boston, where Simmons was living at the time of the story, because it was published during the foundational moments of Tom Brady’s unlikely rise to superstardom as the New England Patriots’ quarterback. In theory, people talked about Brady instead of talking about child molestation. This might sound ridiculous, but it also sounds like escapism. It’s human nature, and it can be dangerous.
Oddly, this is also why we see Spotlight: for it’s entertainment value. Whether through superb acting or clever writing (usually both) every single scene contains high intensity, so much so that you might actually feel physically tired after the film.
Spotlight evokes an appreciation for the power of journalism and the determination of truth in the face of scandal. All of this is important, sure, but that importance doesn’t fluctuate when communicated in a bland or uninspiring way. We choose to watch a version of it told through Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams because, suddenly, it’s riveting. How it affects the way we look at the world once we step out is ancillary.
Star Wars, good or bad, will feel worth the hoopla of seeing it in theaters because it will take us so far away from where we are, if just for a few hours.
From beginning to end, Spotlight is a great movie, and ironically, in being such, is an escape. It keeps us close, though, and it invites us to bring our ideas and experiences into the theater with us. More importantly, it asks us to start acknowledging the things outside that theater.