Sunday, November 8, 2015
Directed by Tom McCarthy
A movie like Spotlight almost feels like a miracle. To find screenwriting so precise, an ensemble performance so sharp, in an understated film made for adults is truly rare. Films like this do indeed have an audience, even if it's a small one. It's procedural tone - it's a film about journalism that for the most part takes that journalistic temperament - does not quench what is an obvious, binding tension. In a lot of ways, this film is the inverse of Truth, another film about journalism that came out just last month. That film contained a strong emotional component, it felt the need to shout out about an institution that had been wronged (it also had an Earth-shattering performance from Cate Blanchett). For all it's grandstanding, Truth was essentially about how Dan Rather and an award-winning news team got the story wrong. Spotlight is about reporters getting the story right. At the turn of the new millennium, there were few stories bigger than the one that the Boston Globe unearthed about the Catholic Church's seemingly pathological sexual abuse of young children. Tom McCarthy's film tracks the Globe's crack investigative team, known famously as 'Spotlight', as they delve into the controversy, meticulously carving out each detail, making sure the story is solid before exposing it to the world. In an America so recently exposed to 9/11, emotions are raw, unprepared for even more trauma. Spotlight is an exceptional film that understands the reporter's responsibility to the public, that never underestimates the exhaustive effort it takes to nail the story down correctly.
Spotlight might be the only film about journalism that approaches the greatness of Alan J. Pakula's 1976 masterpiece, All The President's Men, which is the cinematic cornerstone of newspaper movies. Both films cultivate suspense through their narratives, nothing is manufactured for the audience's sake. They both give the audience a proper context as to what a reporter goes up against when trying to get the fiery story. But All The President's Men was about Woodward & Bernstein and The Washington Post. The Boston Globe is a nationally respected publication, but by all accounts still runs itself as a local paper. As Spotlight opens, the Globe has very recently been bought out by the New York Times, while still working toward maintaining it's small-town reputation. When a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), arrives to assist current editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the mood around the office is suspicious. Boston, a famously Catholic city, now has a Jewish man from South Florida running its most beloved news publication. Marty is emotionally vacant, introduces himself to the team and barely misses being unfriendly; he can feel almost immediately how different he is compared to everyone else, but doesn't let it shake him. One of the reporters meeting him is Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the Spotlight team. At the very first meeting that Baron attends, he suggests that the paper take a harder look at the pederasty cases being brought up against the church throughout the years. Behind a closed door, talking to Bradlee and Robby alone, he suggests further that it might be a job for the Spotlight team.
Known for picking their own topics of investigation, Robby doesn't immediately respond to Marty's pushing, but when he mentions it to his team, they enthusiastically jump on it. The Spotlight crew is a tight collection of reporters, including Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) an Ohio native with a close relationship with her devoted Catholic grandmother; Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) a married, mustachioed family man; and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) an emotionally eager young man who's ready to take on The Big Story. Spotlight digs into their investigation, interviewing Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) a vocal survivor of sexual abuse who heads a small, undistinguished group of victims preyed upon by Catholic priests. They also meet with two lawyers, one named Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), a handsome corporate type known for settling several cases that victims have taken up against various clergymen; the other is Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) a hot-tempered Armenian man who refuses to settle any cases for his clients, instead preferring to take his dozens of cases to court, to get the public to acknowledge the problem. Garabedian claims to have documents that prove not only that the assaults took place, but that Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), the head of the Boston Archdiocese, knew about the misdeeds and continued to let these predators preach at the local churches. These documents have been sealed by the State court, and when Marty files a motion to have these documents unsealed, it's seen as the Boston Globe filing suit against the church. Fully committed at that point, the Spotlight team goes in fully to bring the church's gross misconduct to light.
Movies about Boston - the good ones - have a common theme: a brooding darkness underneath all the patriotic bluster. Beneath the ego, the accents, and the general braggadocio that we see from the city of Boston seems to lie a self-doubt about their own identity. Boston is America's collective younger brother, and it acts accordingly. The best Boston films, like Mystic River and Good Will Hunting, have a good touch to the ear of the city, it's persecution complex and slobbishness. They know the difference between having local pride and turning a blind eye. Spotlight plays into this narrative well. The Boston Globe holds its city sacred, its reporters are given season tickets to the Red Sox and expected to partake. Robby actually went to a high school that is across the street from the paper's offices. That it's this paper that exposes the Catholic Church, an institution so deeply intertwined within the fabric of the mostly Irish community, probably made the reveal most effective. The city plays itself wonderfully, and McCarthy is sure to make the presence of the city felt. In a scene between Mike and Garabedian, the lawyer explains to the reporter what it's like to live in Boston as a non-Irish, non-Catholic. His illustration is not complimentary. The Spotlight team's new understanding of it's own hometown is the most millennial of American stories: a land of greatness, built upon the work of the middle-class, is torn down by the actions of the powerful minority. Learning just how unspectacular home is, that's something Americans have doing quite a lot of over the last fifteen years.
To be clear, Spotlight does not aspire toward metaphor about the American ideal. This is not Aaron Sorkin. The film's script, by McCarthy and Josh Singer (who, it should be said, was a staff writer on Sorkin's The West Wing), is light on its feet, brisk and without much in the way of filler. We aren't given much information about the Spotlight team outside of their work. What we get is small and anecdotal, things we have to piece together from side comments made by the characters off hand. The script isn't afraid to give the characters dimension, quite the opposite, it's actually quite adept at doing so while making sure that the information serves the story. So, even at over two hours, the story hums along, building tension as Spotlight creeps closer and closer to their big catch: proving that the church has not only known, but silenced all cases of sexual abuse for decades. The swift rhythm of the script is matched incredibly by the editing (by Tom McArdle), which perfectly brings to life the charged nature of the scenes. In one of the film's best sequences, the interviews of two separate victims are cross-cut with one another. In one scene, Mike interviews one of Garabedian's clients, a gruff working class Southie in a jumpsuit, while in the other Sacha interviews an emotional gay man, still visibly scarred by the abuse he received as a child. The intended effect is obvious, but still effective. It did not matter who you were or how you were, the predatory nature of these men did not discriminate. As the film unfolds, the sheer numbers of victims, and the variety of background, continues to floor both the Spotlight team and the audience. The film is not hurt by the audience knowing the story. If anything, it's the opposite.
This is the fifth film from Tom McCarthy. The actor-turned-director has cultivated an impressive collection of films with an innate sense of humanity. His first film was The Station Agent, which is mostly responsible for giving us Peter Dinklage, and may still be his best film. Since then he's made two well-meaning, but uneven films in The Visitor and Win Win, and one clunker, The Cobbler with Adam Sandler, which luckily for him was more forgettably bad than memorably terrible. He'll be called an actor's director, which is not inaccurate, but doesn't tell the whole story. His films don't usually possess showy camerawork or wide lenses, and his set pieces are usually little more than sparse scenery for the actors to chew on. He doesn't wow you as a formalist, but his filmmaking abilities are exemplary, his placement of actors and the camera work well with one another. Spotlight is definitely his sharpest film, the one with the most impressive examples of visual storytelling, but it's still his ability with actors that stands out the most. And this is an unbelievably impressive slate of acting talent, the only thing about Spotlight that doesn't make the film feel so small. It's hard to find a better example of a true, collaborative ensemble performance, where the actors are not only exquisite in their own right, but flow together, weaving this remarkable, interchangeable atmosphere where we learn just how indispensable each piece is toward solving the mystery. Even Tucci, Crudup and Slattery, in peripheral roles, work their scenes with a solid consistency that crafts such strong, secure environment, thus enabling McCarthy's attempts at realism. In short, McCarthy does a hell of a job proving that "actor's director" tag right.
The cast is Spotlight's most valuable asset, and more specifically the performances from Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, James and Schrieber. The five actors, all playing characters with completely different backgrounds and personalities, do a brilliant job of showing the subtleties of a coexisting workforce. Keaton and Ruffalo, fresh off Oscar nominations, might both get another for their work here - Robinson and Rezendes are certainly the most showcased of the crew, and Ruffalo makes the best of what amounts to Spotlight's single moment of Sorkinian speech-making. Broadway veteran Brian d'Arcy James works well amongst the movie stars, bringing shades of grey to a character who isn't given much on the page. McAdams, a hardworking actress who's seem poised for a true breakout for years now, does some very strong work here. Standing alone as a the sole female in a male-dominated film isn't easy, and she handles the imbalance with grace, but still plays Sacha with an immediacy that matches her co-stars, and a tenderness that the rest of the film lacks. Schrieber is especially excellent here. His character has long breaks away from the screen, but is impactful whenever he arises. Marty Baron comes off as stand-offish and impersonal, and Schrieber adds an air of calculated morality as well. His ethical motivation to tell the story that no one else in Boston wants to tell seems motivated by moving papers, but Schrieber is careful to let us know in small glimpses just how horrid he finds the situation to be. In a year highlighted by great ensembles (Steve Jobs, Room), these five actors in Spotlight stand out.
I have to return to All The President's Men, a movie that is so undeniably Spotlight's spiritual ancestor. Pakula's movie is the epitome of the subgenre, the one that all other films are trailing, and Spotlight is so careful to both allude to President's Men while still standing alone as its own story. Both films feel nostalgic now, in an age where print journalism have fallen to the Gawkers and the TMZs of the world, and they both appreciate the Herculean effort one partook in writing this kind of story - that you had to actually care about the public in order to serve them. I'm not sure how much journalism serves the public today, with the First Amendment doing its job more often for click-baiting listicles than hard-hitting reporting. The details of what the Spotlight team uncovered in their search is still breathtaking after all these years, and the avalanche of victims who then felt safe coming forward and telling their story afterward is the true victory. Spotlight feels indisputably American in this way. It's the press giving the common man the voice it didn't think it had, and it tells that story without any of the Capra-like melodrama or backpatting. It tells the story straight, without frills or dramatics, and in doing so, becomes one of the very best films of the year.