Spotlight was supposed to be the critical hit of the year. It was supposed to be our era’s All the President’s Men. It’s got the greatest cast since…whatever. Apparently the awards are not working out that way at this point, a few “Best Film” awards and cast awards notwithstanding. That’s a pity, as between the new Star Wars film and the other end-of-year films, there’s a chance that it will be ignored.
It’s not the new All the President’s Men, as some have claimed. It doesn’t have the texture, breadth or depth of that film. But its theme is easily as important, and it’s perhaps the best-acted, intelligent, adult film of the year. For those not yet familiar with it, this is the true story of an investigative team of journalists within The Boston Globe who set their sights on a story of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston diocese. The story begins with an investigation of one priest who seemed to have been protected (i.e., moved around when he got caught), and then unfolds in horrifying layers to indicate a systemic cover-up within the entire Catholic hierarchy in the area.
The film is lean, clean, stripped down, and uncomplicated. The story—not the special effects, or grand camerawork, or even scenery-chewing actors—is the star here, and it’s enough to carry the film through with an intensity that pulls us in in the first few minutes. The film is directed by Tom McCarthy (best known for writing The Station Agent and Million Dollar Arm) and co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer.
It looks and feels like a film directed by a writer. It’s a bit overwritten at times in that the main actors say those “tell me more about that” statements to get the viewer up to speed, or they ask questions that they should already know the answers to, all for our sake as viewers. It’s a tough balance when there are complexities and subtleties to the story, but the film seemed a bit on the literal and explanatory side at times. The camera movement and mise-en-scène of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who did more dramatic photographic work in Silver Linings Playbook and especially The Warrior, is here more subdued and submitted to the forward motion of the plot. Unlike those two films, too, the color palette is more realistic and reflective of a normal office set-up. Less exciting, but in good service to the focus on the investigators.
What’s getting all the attention, aside from the theme of the film, is the acting. Michael Keaton has already won a Best Actor Award from the New York Film Critics Circle, and for some mysterious reason, Rachel McAdams was picked for a Best Supporting Actress Award nomination from her peers in the Screen Actors Guild. She was solid, to be sure, and put forth more intelligence than charm and screen presence, which is difficult considering how much of the latter two qualities she possesses. But why the guild passed over the other actors is confusing. Thankfully, they are nominated by the guild as a cast, but that’s a tough category this year (see The Big Short, Straight Outta Compton and Trumbo.)
If I had to pick a standout in this excellent group, it may well be Liev Schreiber (television’s Ray Donovan), who plays the new boss from out of town who is less than welcome at first but brings the necessary outsider perspectives needed to push the story through to its grand conclusion. He underplays beautifully, which adds a great contrast to the other actors, and adds another level of complexity to the overall story.
There isn’t a weak link in the cast. Keaton is smart and intense, John Slattery is solid, the irreplaceable Stanley Tucci adds another great character to his repertoire, Jamey Sheridan has never been better, Billy Crudup is slick but never sleazy, and Brian d’Arcy James (a Broadway legend but probably best known for TV’s Smash) should be thanking his lucky stars every night that he had the opportunity to join this cast for this film (and he’s nearly as good as the others, but with just a little less screen presence).
The always fascinating Mark Ruffalo has the official lead in the cast, and brings his unique presence to the film. He is the hothead, and his trademark intensity is on hand to complement the character’s concerns and actions. Ruffalo is a presence like Bill Murray, not in the comedy sense, but in the sense that he tends to always be in another film than every else, and he seems to break out of the mise-en-scène like a solo actor in an old movie with a matte shot behind him of the other actors. On one hand, it works for a character not in synch with the rest of his team at times, but for someone who always threatens to punch through the screen, underplaying seems to serve him best (see Foxcatcher for a fine example).
Without overplaying his hand, McCarthy lets us know that we are all guilty of some level of complicity in the cover-up. There were those who coolly and knowingly put politics or expediency before the safety of children, and there were others who, to one degree or another, essentially ignored the story at one stage or another—for almost understandable reasons: Who would have imagined the scope? Who would have had the ability to connect the dots early on? There is plenty of guilt to go around, but we are moved and challenged rather than slimed.
The film falters in a few ways. Slattery’s character seems as if there is more to the story of his decisions and reactions, but nothing comes of it; it seems as if something was left on the cutting room floor (or archived). The dedication to the story-chasing is probably reflective of the journalists’ focus, but the leanness unfortunately makes the film pale a bit in comparison to All the President’s Men, a comparison that is inevitable considering the two stories—and even the presence of Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) in the older film and Ben Bradlee Jr. (Slattery) in the newer one. Perhaps a little more rounding of the characters’ lives or emotions might have made for a stronger film.
Yet Spotlight is easily one of the best films of the year, and perhaps the most important one. It’s a showcase of great acting, a defense of the kind of journalism we rarely see, and its theme, while not allowed to resonate with the viewer as it could, is unfortunately always tragic and always current. We don’t get a lot of smart, mature films that handle a strong theme with intelligence and cunning. We need to see them when they come around.