Spotlight (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber & Stanley Tucci
Music: Howard Shore
Release Date: January 29th 2016
If you look at contemporary journalism, it’s become a punch-line. There’s no beating around the bush here. The advent of the internet and revenue primarily through advertising means that most news outlets rely on salacious, often-inaccurate and misleading headlines because the content doesn’t matter. As long as you go on that news outlet’s website, then they have the ad-revenue and the quality doesn’t matter. You can also blame low consumer standards meaning it’s not very often we see genuine, effective journalism.
And in movies you don’t see it often either because a lot of the drama would consist of phone calls, long meetings, slow interviews and months of typing before potentially going to print. It’s not incredibly cinematic. However, ‘Spotlight‘ looks set to buck the trend. Director Tom McCarthy’s movie about the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” journalists investigating widespread child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church between 2001 and 2002 is an Oscar front-runner and is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the past year. But is there more to ‘Spotlight‘ than just a good story or is this story big enough for a movie screen?
In 2001, the Boston Globe newspaper hires a new editor, Marty Baron (Schreiber) who stumbles across as potential story about a paedophile priest and commissions the Globe’s “Spotlight” team to investigate. “Spotlight”, led by Walter Robinson (Keaton) and consisting of Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Matt Carroll (d’Arcy James) investigate the Boston Catholic Community but the digger they deep the more they realise that this goes further than just one, rouge priest. When the scale of events becomes apparent, “Spotlight” try to discover whether or not the Cardinals at the top actually knew about the abuse and whether or not they tried to cover it up.
‘Spotlight‘ is working off of an effective template with the true story that it is portraying. The work that the “Spotlight” team did for the Boston Globe which won them the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service is a fascinating story on its own, so simply portraying that in film would already be a recipe for success. Thankfully, writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer did deeper into the idea that maybe a lot of people were complicit in the priest’s deplorable acts and not just their superiors.
Boston is a predominantly Catholic community and the priests in question targeted children with problem parents in low-income families as they were less likely to tell others and their parents were glad that a religious figure of authority in their city was paying attention to them. Also, because the religious organisation is so powerful that any attempt to portray them negatively could blow back against the Boston Globe and they could easily bury the story. But when the actual scale of events is made apparent and the “Spotlight” team investigate further, they realise that the story has not only been on their doorstep this whole time but they had all of the pieces years ago but just didn’t do anything with the information. This is actually where the film stumbles in terms of structure where the clues are dangled in front of the audience very early on but the characters don’t address this obvious lapse in logic until nearer the end of the movie.
But ‘Spotlight‘ is a movie that is all about subtlety and grounded emotions. There’s one outburst from Mark Ruffalo nearer the end of the movie, but he’s really the only character to get a moment like that. There are frequent reveals throughout ‘Spotlight‘ and the team usually react in silent awe which feels like a much more natural reaction. It feels more down-to-earth and because of the understated reactions and the moments of quiet, you can almost feel the movie-going audience’s collective shock at what has transpired when watching ‘Spotlight‘ in a crowded theatre. That quiet is more for the audience than it is for the characters.
Because these events really happened and according to my research, the movie doesn’t embellish much. And while the passage of time is another one of the film’s structural problems as how much time passes from scene to scene feels very confusing (as well as one instance of the team being told their deadline is January…even though the audience aren’t told what month it CURRENTLY is), the fact that “Spotlight”s investigation took as long as it did means that we get a broad look at what goes into reporting a story like this. Everything from interviewing victims, getting approval from a supervisor, having to postpone work because something bigger just came up, deciding whether to print what you already have to get there before other newspapers do, or wait until you have more information…it’s just a fascinating process.
Part of me actually wishes that ‘Spotlight‘ was longer so it could elaborate even more on the process. It’s 129 minutes long, but when you’re dealing with a story like this in such an under-stated nature then I think you could add another 10 minutes onto that. For example, it feels like Sacha Pfeiffer played by Rachel McAdams doesn’t get as much to do on-screen as the rest of the cast despite the potential being there. She mentions that she no longer goes to church with her mother because she can’t think of Catholicism in the same way after her findings, but it feels like something the audience should have SEEN as opposed to just being TOLD, especially since another sub-plot involving Matt Carroll played by Brian d’Arcy James discovering one of the suspected priests lives just down the road from him does get the necessary screen-time. Another Sacha Pfeiffer moment involves a very frank and formal confession on the front door of a priest’s house…and then it’s never brought up again. It comes across like a bomb-shell moment but it doesn’t get followed up on.
But that’s easy to ignore in the moment when you have an ensemble cast this compelling. While Michael Keaton plays the head of the operation, ‘Spotlight‘ is very much a team-effort and there’s no singular lead character. Each actor gets a relatively similar amount of screen-time and they all get moments to shine. It’s also interesting in that the cast aren’t really “Hollywood-types”. ‘Spotlight‘ doesn’t try to glamorize the real-life figures in terms of appearance and they’ve even cast actors who look scarily similar to their real-life counterparts (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Shreiber and Rachel McAdams). But subtlety is the name of the game here with wonderful minute details in terms of expression and line delivery, particularly from Mark Ruffalo who has such a humble on-screen presence and you can’t help but be enraptured by his thought-process.
‘Spotlight‘ excels when multiple cast members are sharing the screen and spouting riveting dialogue with each other. Structural problems aside, ‘Spotlight‘ has a very strong screenplay which balances multiple people over a long-stretch of time concerning one topic. It’s about a terrible topic, but it’s not gratuitous or exploitative as the audience never actually see the abuse take place, they only hear the first-hand accounts of it from distressed victims. The audience view-point rarely leaves the “Spotlight” team and that gives the movie a sense of comradery. This was a team effort, this is an ensemble cast and that’s where ‘Spotlight‘ is at its most engaging and empathetic.
But the directing doesn’t really seem to compliment that. While Tom McCarthy has done a great job at making 129 minutes of dialogue engrossing, the cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi is pretty flat. The locations aren’t particularly striking as there are a lot of whites and greys but that’s natural as most of the movie takes place in offices, but it’s all about how the camera focuses on the actors. Most of the shots in scenes involving multiple people talking will only have one person in the frame talking to someone off-camera.
It often feels like the people in question are monologuing to themselves, not taking part in an actual conversation. Since ‘Spotlight‘ is a movie that revels in its ensemble, this is a big issue. It means a lot of key moments feel emotionally distant and detached from the viewer. The best moments in ‘Spotlight‘ are when multiple characters inhabit the same frame and are allowed to work with the accessible and endearing script, which makes this visual choice more disappointing than anything.
While ‘Spotlight‘ does feel like a TV-movie in terms of its direction (it just occurred to me that ‘Spotlight‘ would have made a phenomenal 5-part drama or something similar), it’s still an admirable feat to make good journalism make for compelling cinema. We explore a lot of locations, meet lots of characters and small details indicating the time period from bulky laptops, flip-phones and seeing Windows XP operating systems are great, immersive touches. Incidentally, it’s nice to see the make-up team go understated with the cast. No one here is dolled-up or made to look like a glamour-model which they could have very easily done. Also, Howard Shore’s music, while not bad by any means, is repetitive as hell. Basically every scene transition in the first half has the same three of four bars of piano music. It actually gets unintentionally funny at points and emphasises the TV-movie nature of the production.
‘Spotlight‘ is an effective true-story film which delves deeply into one of the most talked-about news stories of the 21st century and it does so without compromising or holding back or diluting the subject matter. It has a terrific ensemble cast that are working perfectly in tandem with each other and its understated nature and emphasis on quiet revelations and subtle deeds makes the story all the more affective and engaging. But I can’t go as far as most critics and call it a 5-star masterpiece as it has structural problems which really nagged at me, missed potential in regards to many plot-points it sets up and its TV-movie, isolated cinematography and music. That having been said, ‘Spotlight‘ is still definitely worth checking out and worth experiencing the story but in regards to its objective merits, it isn’t an instant classic.
I give ‘Spotlight‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 3rd Feb 16