Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Spotlight (2015)
Dir. Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Starring, woah, all the peoples. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, James Sheridan, Billy Crudup

Ah, the curse of success.

Now that this won Best Picture (beating out some very, very deserving competition) I suspect people will quickly start to turn against it as unambitious, as pedestrian, or, worse, as Oscar-baity “issue-of-the-week” pandering. It’s just the way of things, and the Oscars have not exactly helped themselves by cultivating such a rich history of boring, unimaginative monuments to predictable mediocrity slinking by under the guise of being “about” something. They chose DANCES WITH WOLVES over GOODFELLAS, you know. They gave best picture to A BEAUTIFUL MIND*, marking the exact last moment in history any human remembered A BEAUTIFUL MIND existed, outside the context of mentioning how lame the Oscars are. So it’s not surprising that people look at this --a simple, straightforward drama about a real-life tragedy and the heroic journalists that uncovered it-- and smelled a rat.

I guess that’s their prerogative, but they’re wrong. I actually really dug the hell out of this one. It’s just such a solid, fundamentally well-constructed movie that a lot of its strengths sneak by. It’s not showy. There aren’t really any big showstoppers or set pieces. Only one big yelling scene, and it’s a short one. Instead, it’s a classic example of a kind of film we mostly don’t get very much any more: a straightforward drama, well-written and well-assembled with a bunch of excellent actors, which is 100% confident that the story itself will be interesting enough to keep us engrossed without any kind of hook or postmodern trickery or stylistic gimmicks.

For me, anyway, it worked. I was absolutely absorbed for every single second of runtime. But the superficial simplicity makes it look so easy that I think a lot of folks underestimate the immense challenge the film sets for itself. Somehow it effectively articulates a huge structural problem (systemic abuse of children in the Boston Catholic church), the equally complex inner structure of the newspaper staff trying to expose the problem (the Boston Globe, whose “Spotlight” investigative team lends the film its name), a sprawling cast of Bostonians from every walk of city life (from victims to lawyers to power brokers), and an equally sprawling twisty-turny years-long investigation, and synthesizes all those disparate threads into a completely streamlined, digestible, and totally engrossing format, all without any obvious shortcuts or tepid exposition or reductive shorthand. By God, that’s something to admire.

It is about an “issue,” of course, and it certainly gives its central issue a worthy exploration. But that’s not all it is; in fact, I think it’s much more interesting as a drama-thriller-news-procedural full of interesting twists and turns which gradually lay bare not just the details of a tragedy, but how a whole system at every level conspired –mostly without actual malice– to facilitate and perpetuate that tragedy (including, unwittingly, the very people who eventually take the time to uncover it.) It’s the storytelling and the razor-sharp eye for detail which makes this an experience worth undertaking, not its function as journalism or muckraking. I take umbrage, then, at the implication that SPOTLIGHT is selling itself as an “issues movie,” which is to say it’s a work which exists to draw our attention and concern to a particular tragic issue and raise “awareness.” Because if that’s all it is, it’s pretty needless. This was one of the biggest news stories of this Millennium. I think it’s not much hyperbole to say that nearly everyone on Earth heard about this this particular story. I suspect you could go to rural villages in China, and if you asked them about Catholicism they’d bring it up. And it hasn’t faded with time; despite the events of this movie being over a decade old (and a lot of the events exposed being decades older than that) it’s still very much a part of our current discourse; hell, jokes about priest molestation have become so ubiquitous they’ve lost all meaning. There’s not a lot more “awareness” to raise, even about the particulars of the case.

So while the movie does concern itself with a true story, frankly, I think the movie would be just as strong –and hell, maybe even stronger, because it wouldn’t have the same baggage– if it was about a fictional event instead of a real one. Like The Wire --a comparison I do not make lightly--, the strength here is in the startlingly clarity with which it allows us to see both the large scale and the intimate scale, and how they’re connected. It’s so efficient at making these connections that you hardly even notice how much complicated information is crammed in there — but compare it to something like THE BIG SHORT (which spends most of its time having celebrities directly describe to the camera what we’re supposed to learn) and it should be immediately clear how remarkably strong director Tom  McCarthy’s (THE STATION AGENT) command of screenwriting, editing, and directing is. That takes real mastery to do, and appropriately there’s a strong nuts-and-bolts focus on fine-tuning the details here until they’re just right, ‘til the whole thing just sings, even when it has to do near-suicidal things like stop cold to acknowledge that 9/11 happened right in the middle of everything.

Aiding McCarthy, of course, is a ridiculous dream cast of pretty much every distinguished actor working right now (they even have an uncredited Richard Jenkins cameo, that’s how committed they were to getting everyone) led by a rock-solid Michael Keaton, but with plenty of room for everyone to shine. Mark Ruffalo gets probably the showiest role as something of a twitchy oddball, but I could spend all day rattling off terrific little details about everyone here. I love the way Rachel McAdams somehow conveys her complete spiritual exhaustion entirely through her eyes. Her character is a total pro, a cool cat, someone who is not going to get rattled or let you see how deeply this is getting to her, even in the scene where she admits it aloud. But you already know, because you can see it in those deep, haunted eyes. And then there’s Stanley Tucci’s pugnacious, cynical idealist lawyer who can’t stop fighting even though he’s long ago given up any hope of actual justice. And John Slattery's curiously petulant editor, who maybe would prefer not to know, despite his professional cooperation. And Billy Crudup and James Sheridan as complicated assholes who are definitely part of the problem but probably don’t see themselves that way. And maybe most of all, an effortlessly spellbinding Liev Schreiber as the quiet, seemingly nonchalant new editor who calmly decides his paper is going to tear down one of the most powerful institutions in the world. They all communicate so much subtle detail about their characters, mostly without ever saying a word out loud. In a movie this loaded with plot, there is not a lot of time for languid emotion, but there’s so much texture in each of these roles that there’s no need to pause for it, it’s both obvious and unobtrusive in every single scene who these people are and how they deal with the horror show they’re unmasking.

It’s this sort of rigorous, unflashy attention to detail which makes a film inherently cinematic. I’ve read reviews that criticize the film as “bland.” To me, that represents an almost insultingly narrow view of what film should be. I love highly stylized, visually expressive cinema, of course, but while film is primarily a visual medium, it’s also a terrific narrative medium –and that’s what the focus is here. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shot THE GREY, he shot BLACK MASS. He knows his way around visual fireworks when he wants them. Here, McCarthy elects for a simple visual aesthetic, probably more than anything to avoid distracting from –or abstracting– the great complexity of plot. That’s an artistic choice, not a flaw. This is unapologetically set in the real world, the mundane one which we all inhabit. Is it really not enough just to have an interesting story, well told? Is it less ambitious a work of art for its focus on acting and storytelling rather than cinematic razzmatazz? Is it less interesting because it’s depicting a real event? I don’t think so. I simply refuse to believe we’re incapable of finding a story fundamentally gripping without a flashy enough package. Honestly I walked out of this one positively aglow with the magic of cinema. It really bums me out to hear people dismiss it under the assumption that it’s one of those cynical big-screen Lifetime Movies that wants to grab unearned Serious Artist cred just by recycling a real-life tragedy. I mean, I hate those too. But I don’t think this is one. I think this is closer to the movie it understandably get compared to a lot: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Yes, it happens to tell a true story which is still very much a part of the zeitgeist, but more than that it’s also a great, timeless example of top-notch writing, acting, and directing.

There’s no overstating this: It takes an enormous amount of discipline to make a film like this work so well, and yet it’s so unflashy that I actually think, regardless of the awards it’s been winning, that McCarthy isn’t getting enough credit for his work here. There’s a presumption of maturity at the center of this film, a consistent refusal to hand-hold and spoon-feed the audience, and a quiet confidence in its staid, direct storytelling, which simply feels too rare these days to ignore. Is it better than FURY ROAD, or THE REVENANT?** Eh, I don’t know; I’ll almost certainly return to those before I watch this again. But is it really a competition? They’re different, and they’re all great. Despite the ripped-from-the-headlines (ten years ago) subject matter, SPOTLIGHT has a timeless quality which may actually give it some life beyond the usual hyped-and-forgotten Oscar-bait cycle. At the very least, I think it deserves it. Plus, McCarthy made THE COBBLER this year. The fucking COBBLER. There’s something wonderfully appealing to me about the idea that McCarthy made both the uncontested worst film of 2015 and --just maybe-- the best.

(I do wish it had a better name, though. I get why it’s called SPOTLIGHT, but that’s a little generic.)

*In an admittedly miserable year for movies which included MONKEYBONE, PEARL HARBOR, GHOSTS OF MARS, JURASSIC PARK III, and fucking FREDDY GOT FINGERED for God’ sake. But there were plenty of better options, including A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, THE SCORE, THE OTHERS, TRAINING DAY, MONSTERS INC, ROYAL TENENBAUMS, LoR:FotR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, GHOST WORLD, MEMENTO, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, OCEAN’S 11, SESSION 9, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER. I never saw IN THE BEDROOM, maybe that’s good too. I guess MOULIN ROUGE, too, at least it’s unique. Some real strengths there. I dunno if I want to call any of those an all-time classic, but any of them would have been a better choice than fuckin’ BEAUTIFUL MIND, obviously. Actually the genuine best movie that year might have been the little-seen Keanu Reeves Little League Baseball dramedy HARDBALL. Jesus, what the fuck were we doing with ourselves back in 2001?

Outside America, incidentally, the year went much better. AMELIE came out that year. And THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, KAIRO (PULSE), FULLTIME KILLER, INTACTO, SPIRITED AWAY, and THE TAILOR OF PANAMA . But none of those would have been eligible for best picture.

** Yes, I know you all hate THE REVENANT. Whatever.


  1. About the size of the story - central Europe here, I'm up to date with US culture, heavily against institutionalized religion, haven't heard about the Boston story. Neither anyone from my family and friends.
    You have no idea how fortified the image of catholic church is in some parts of the world.

  2. Also, Freddy Got Fingered holds up. I've seen it some time ago and its choices are too deliberate to be accidental - this is dada, Putney Swope shit. Too many way weird details.
    First time I've seen it, it was in the context of dumb teen comedies (which were plentiful those days), and yeah, it seemed like the worst movie ever. Now I kinda admire its audacity.

  3. Maciej -- thanks for pointing that out. I suppose I should have specified that I thought people knew about systemic sexual abuse within the church itself, not specifically in Boston (though the Boston story did a lot to help shed light on the Vatican's practices in other places, so I'd guess you actually have heard about it indirectly). The Pope even publically apologized for it. I hope THAT at least was World news... right? http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-pope-francis-sexual-abuse-apology-20140707-story.html

    As for FREDDY, I agree that it's intentionally bizarre as a way of deconstructing expected comedy tropes. A.O. Scott famously called it brilliant. I think it actually anticipated a lot of the more abstract anti-humor which is quite widespread today (Tim and Eric, Comedy Bang Bang, etc), so in that sense it's kinda groundbreaking. There legitimately isn't anything else quite like it. But for my money, it's still a shrill and unpleasant experience, mostly scraping by on fairly superficial narrative subversion and shock gags. When Nathan Rabin reviewed it for his "Year of Flops" series, he said, "If you were to give a talented but deeply disturbed 12-year-old $15 million to make a movie, I suspect it'd be a lot like Fingered." He meant it as a compliment. I agree with him completely, and I also think it perfectly explains why I have not come around to it. I've seen too many films which are just naturally sick and depraved and nonsensical to care about someone intentionally doing it as a vanity project. To be fair, I haven't seen it since it came out, so maybe my standards are lower now.

    Trivia: This is definitely the first time I've posted about the world political context of a Best Picture Oscar winner and wound up having to defend my dislike of FREDDY GOT FINGERED.

  4. Hey, these are the only parts that I slightly disagree with. Spotlight is great and I too don't get how people can not feel the magic of cinema while watching it. It flows just so naturally. Anyways, sorry for being negative, this was a really insightful review.

    (One last thing about FGF - I don't believe it was a vanity project. It was the only shot Tom Green had at mainstream movie-making, with a 14 mln budget from a major studio. And what he envisioned was so unpleasant, alienating and uncompromised that it ended his career overnight. This is a Chappelle move in my eyes.)

  5. Not at all, I'm always glad to hear what people think, especially when they're coming from somewhere very different from me!

    I suppose it was a bit unfair to call FGF a vanity project. In fact, I hesitated and almost didn't write that when I first responded, but didn't quite know what else to call it. My hero in film criticism, Vern from www.outlawvern.com, has a theory about auteurs, that eventually if we're lucky they all make their own Brian de Palma's FEMME FATALE. You know, the movie where all the themes and fetishes and subtexts they've been working with their whole career become the main text, and it becomes crazy and over-indulgent and everyone hates it except a few true believers. Tony Scott's DOMINO. Hitchock's FRENZY. Stone's NATURAL BORNE KILLERS. Mel Gibsons' PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Steven Seagal's ON DEADLY GROUND. I think FGF is like that for Green, just a complete dumping of everything, with no filter. Trouble is, I don't think he was quite ready for that yet, his ideas aren't really interesting enough to justify that kind of excess and indulgence IMHO. But I'll certainly grant it's definitely an exercise in auteurial voice. Just maybe not a very interesting one, at least as far as I'm concerned. I like all those other films I listed, so maybe it's just Green himself, maybe I'm just not really very interested in him or seeing him indulge his most extravagant fetishes, which leaves FGF pretty empty. I felt the same way about 8 1/2, so maybe that puts Green in good company.