Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
For a while, the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar was a little film called Spotlight, directed by the guy who made the second most recent crappy Adam Sandler movie. (Whether or not you worked on a slasher, I will dig those skeletons out of your closet.) Seeing as how Oscarbait heavyhitters and Brennan Klein get along about as well as the Brody family and great white sharks, I didn’t immediately rush out to see it.
However, during a harebrained attempt to screen all the nominees before the Academy Awards, I found myself at a late night screening of Spotlight. Lo and behold, it wasn’t as tortuous as I imagined it might be.
Even taking into account my allergy to true stories.
Spotlight is a dramatization of the real life reporters who uncovered the molestation scandal in the Catholic church. Geez, when will Tom McCarthy stop making these light-hearted comedies? Spotlight is the name of the crack investigation team of the Boston Globe, which has just been bought out by the Times, bringing new editor Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) to the table. As a non-Bostonian and therefore non-Catholic, he pretty quickly sniffs out a rat in a recent hushed-up spot of drama in the local church. He decides to shine Spotlight on the case.
Thus three reporters, the work-obsessed Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), lapsed Catholic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and guy who won’t get into the Oscar reel Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), as well as their editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton, who probably feels demoed, because he has the sidekickiest alter ego name ever written) get embroiled in the scandal and soon discover that there is corruption in the church that rises all the way to the top. They seek out victims of molestation and proof of the church’ negligence toward addressing the problem while facing enormous pressure from the church and the community to back off.
But if there’s one thing I learned from just Like Heaven, it’s that Mark Ruffalo doesn’t back off from ANYTHING.
Spotlight really is quite good. It’s a crisp, efficient film with a brisk pace and a quiet charm. I suppose that’s a counterintuitive way to describe a movie with such dark subject matter, but Spotlight goes very far out of its way to defang the material, honing in on the nitty gritty of journalistic investigation rather than the actual horrors behind closed doors. It wants to be a triumphant film rather than a bleak one, and the safe packaging of the scandal might make it a far less urgent and necessary piece, but it’s at least a palatable one.
Palatable is about all Spotlight is, but it does it very well. Other than effectively recreating the overlit hubbub of a newspaper office (you know this is a period piece because newspapers are still hiring), the cinematography only makes the leap into greatness once, during a shot of an interview dominated by a hulking church, which drives home the sense of creeping oppression the film strives to build. The rest is completely adequate, but it matches Spotlight’s true nature: a standard retelling of an important story rather than an essential work of cinema art.
Every element of Spotlight functions like this: bright, strong, and utterly typical. The music is jaunty, inviting, and appropriately somber when the time comes. The editing gets us from scene to scene at a steady clip. The characters are brutally functional, their lives outside of the office painted in brush strokes ten feet wide. It’s as precise and impersonal as clockwork.
Remember analog clocks? That really takes me back.
The most human aspect of Spotlight is, quelle surprise, the performers. Keaton, McAdams, and James perform roughly what is expected of them and Ruffalo gets his opportunity to shout his way into an Oscar nomination, but the real beating heart of Spotlight lies in its peripheral characters. Liev Schreiber manages to humanize a rather stifling archetypical role (the perfect, unflagging voice of reason/mentor) by exposing his nerves and flaws through vocal tics and precise control over his tone, and Stanley Tucci devours a rather meaty role even further on the sidelines. But the real driving force of Spotlight is the ensemble of relative unknowns portraying adult survivors of molestation. Without their commitment and talent, the emotional core of Spotlight would be null and void.
So, Spotlight has plenty of ups and plenty of downs, though the lower threshold of its downs is still pretty high. It’s a clean, safe presentation of a taboo topic and a showcase for performances just begging to be nominated. But does it deserve Best Picture? Oh, hell no.
TL;DR: Spotlight is an efficient and brisk film that never flags, but isn't exactly an artistic masterwork.
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