Spotlight is an excellent drama of journalism in action. All those people saying it is the best since All The President’s Men are wrong. It is, in fact, better.
It’s virtues are subtle but wonderful: a graceful script, a verité sense of the production design, unshowy direction, calibrated performances — not least by Mark Ruffalo — and a wallop of a dramatic conclusion that beats the pants off All The President’s ‘hey, you know the rest of this story’ abrupt ending.
The events of Spotlight took place not long ago, but as the film dramatizes without underlining too much, the changes in journalism thanks to the internet have changed everything. One shot really, which shows an AOL billboard looming over the Boston Globe parking lot, visually communicates it all.
Actor-cum-writer/director Tom McCarthy has quietly been making excellent films for years. Win Win, in particular, I felt did not get its due. Still, the control exhibited here, both in the economy of the storytelling and subtlety of the performances, evinces a new level of confidence. Like All The President’s Men, Spotlight trusts the inherent drama of chasing a story, the small triumphs over petty bureaucracies and the nagging fear that a rival reporter is going to beat you to the big headline.
Ruffalo, as is his tendency, is a bit mannered for my taste. He still transforms himself with this role in a way I’ve never seen, and his big speech near the end of the film is a truly great acting moment. Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci and Michael Keaton are less attention-grabbing but still excellent. By true picks for acting MVPs are the lesser-known character actors, all of whom inhabit their roles in a way that seems effortless: Brian d’Arcy James, James Sheridan, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton & the man who played the victim who finally consents to use his name and picture. (I cannot find the actor’s name.)
Spotlight is the conventional wisdom pick to win Best Picture. For me, it didn’t give me the same frisson as The Revenant or The Big Short. It is, however, an excellent and important film. Like The Big Short it reminds us in closing that, sadly, even exposure of scandals does little to change the status quo.
The Catholic Church continues to be, in Star Wars parlance, a hive of scum and villainy. I say this ruefully, and from my perch within a family of Catholics. What can even great filmmaking do in the face of religious conviction? At least with Bill Cosby finally facing arrest, perhaps there is some hope that our most corrupt institutions will see justice, even if it has been a justice delayed.