Spotlight was a movie I was relatively late to the party on. Not that I was completely late to it, but by the time it was even on my radar, it was the most locked Best Picture nominee.
And upon reading the synopsis for the film, explaining itself as retelling the 2001 story of the titular investigative team for the Boston Globe as it digs into a story of conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual abuse of minors as perpetrated by several priests within the Church. If that sort of historical biopic backdrop for social issues heavily moral doesn’t sound like Oscarbait, you don’t know Oscarbait.
And upon seeing it’s directed by Thomas McCarthy, I had a lump in my throat, for my very first exposure to his work was earlier in the year with the appalling Adam Sandler dramedy mess The Cobbler. A reprehensible enough movie to make me wary to see anything else done by anybody involved with that film in the slightest – as a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I’m not even sure I want to listen to Method Man anymore. So, since THAT had to be my first Tom McCarthy picture, I was afraid that Spotlight would be similarly incompetent with the worst possible material to screw up.
Now, on the one hand, Spotlight indeed turned out to be the Oscarbait we were expecting. But, it is phenomenally well-crafted Oscarbait, sophisticated enough that I don’t hesitate in calling it my second favorite of the Best Picture nominees, even if Mad Max: Fury Road is the only one that I think belongs there. Much of the praise on the film is rightly given to how McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer dedicate their focus on the painstaking meticulous manner of digging through as many sources and asking as many questions as possible to slowly bring together a full picture on how far and deep does this conspiracy run, with editor Tom McArdle being the film’s biggest weapon taking time to show how messy the pile of information that the Spotlight team has to work with is before letting them making their tedious cracking at it run right on without any slowdowns nor making it seem like this work was easy.
The other main source of praise, the one that actively has my head scratching, is where I’ve seen people claim Spotlight is entirely unbiased to the events the team is reporting. Which isn’t true at all. Spotlight could have been an objective recollection of the events (though, without going into the morality, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective about child rape), but it’s not, for the other shocking strength of Spotlight is how it achieves being an ensemble character study.
Well, ideally, the CHARACTER central to this is Spotlight, but that Spotlight team is made up of head Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). All of whom are humans whose reactions we have to witness as they’re digging up more and more information, most of whom are lapsed Catholics themselves who now have to witness the Church in a different light. It doesn’t override the movie’s intentions to be a story about how the system of journalism works, but it’s there and it’s sneakily snuck into the places where we think the investigation is at the front-and-center of the movie, only to see McArdle cut many times to the faces listening to the victims rather than the faces talking to them (Spotlight is not at all dismissive of the victims either, the moments where we listen to their accounts are sobering without manipulating the audience the gravitas of the recollections). There are few visual noted visual flourishes, for Spotlight is a very muted film (my first reaction was almost to add on to the “this would be a better film as a documentary” brigade only to figure that to miss the point), but its most obvious one is how it portrays that act of listening as taking its mental and emotional toll on each of the characters as they realize what grim reality this paints and what repercussions their story will have.
Spotlight is of course not the only one affected by this – new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is trying to get a good feel for this new position of his, and section editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) begin at ends in regards to this story (Baron being the one who prods Spotlight into taking it and taking brunt for it as well as being an outsider), while Rezendes constantly compels exhausted attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to pull out a lot of old skeletons out of the legal closet to help Spotlight get decisive information on the case while attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) regrettably maintains his representation for the church.
The machinations of the journalistic and legal process becomes a smokescreen for a picture of all the people affected by this case from the outside and later, a portrait of Boston as a city with this as a dark shadow behind it (there is at least one shot to my memory of a church overlooking our characters, though I can’t say I buy that as the movie not dipping its hand). And this wouldn’t work half as much if the cast were not as successful as they were in making characters whose sole function is to move us closer and closer to unveiling the truth we already know, with Tucci being the standout best. Ruffalo is the only one who actually gets caught acting. Like, really caught acting. He is the movie’s biggest weakness as he stares as goes out of his way to broadcast ticks of Rezendes and overshoots his Big Acting Moment in the movie (everybody gets one). That he’s the one actor with an Oscar nomination for this film makes me slightly bitter, but he’s outnumbered by so many restrained performances under McCarthy that turn humanity into drama instantly assuages that bemusement of mine.
It’s not All the President’s Men and it’s not going to be. Nor is Spotlight trying to be, since All the President’s Men asphyxiates itself on tension and paranoia while Spotlight is not much more than a well-crafted social piece by a director who knows where his strengths are. It doesn’t break the mold of journalism pictures and I wouldn’t make it a Best Picture nominee and yes, it is at times semi-anonymous for those reasons, but it’s satisfying and intelligent and that’s all it needed to be to go and redeem the name of a director I was barely familiar with.
On the nicest note to possibly end on, I have since seen all the other Thomas McCarthy films – The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win – and can safely say McCarthy is a really good director. A very strong director of character and acting, in case Spotlight didn’t already display that. Maybe I can pull a retrospective soon…