There’s a tendency among younger film critics to be openly dismissive, if not outright contemptuous, of so called prestige movies. And while I understand that impulse, as actor driven movies can be just as cliched, poorly made or boring as any big budget blockbuster, I refuse to dismiss them outright. A lot of good movies often come out of prestige season, even if some of them can be kind of dull.
And as this year begins to move slowly into Oscar season, I started looking up. A lot of really good movies, like The Martian, Steve Jobs and Bridge of Spies have been hitting during this Oscar season, giving the Oscar movies a better track record than the blockbuster season. And this movie, with a fantastic subject, great cast and a director with a mostly good track record (ignoring the brief moment where he worked with Adam Sandler) definitely had my attention.
Spotlight takes its name from the famous Boston Globe Spotlight Team, who would do lengthy, in depth investigative coverage of a single issue often lasting months. In this case, the Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) thinks there might be something in the recent Catholic molestation case a crusading lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is bringing to trial.
So off goes the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Martt Carrol (Brian d’Arcy James. And, if you were at all aware of world events in 2002, you know what they eventually uncovered: A conspiracy of silence, intimidation and out of court settlements to keep the sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests under wraps, their coverage of which eventually led others to speak out and uncover a worldwide scandal.
But Spotlight the movie isn’t interested in the worldwide scandal, or even in the reaction the report produced in Boston. What it is interested in is the nuts and bolts of the Spotlight team’s investigation. Spotlight is a movie about reporters, in the vein of Zodiac or maybe All the President’s Men. That’s not a complaint though, it’s merely a different approach to telling the story that the movie has to adjust to.
The movie gets its big triumphant moments from finding small details in the investigation, such as when they discover the church’s directory of Priests by year, and that it contains regularly used code words for when a Priest has been taken out of circulation. Similarly it mines its moments of dread and horror from when they discover that there could be as many as 90 Priests in the city of Boston alone, or that one of the reporters lives around the corner from one of the houses where they put Priests for rehabilitation.
It’s lucky that the film adjusts to these different needs easily. The script is direct and straightforward, focusing on the character’s investigation at the expense of all other aspects of their lives. The number of times we see the characters not in their office or on an interview for the investigation can be counted on one hands, and even the majority of those times, they’re at a party or a dinner to dig for information. That kind of heavy focus could mean the characters feel sparse, but the ensemble cast and on-the-job characterization keeps the cast from feeling light.
Not that the script doesn’t have time for depth. For me, the most interesting element of the story is how it examines the culture of Boston and Massachusetts at large. The film posits, initially through implication but eventually through outright declaration, that the heavily Catholic culture of Massachusetts (which remains 40 percent Catholic to this day) helped with the coverup, not just because the Catholic church has the power to lean on people there, but because people were willing to look the other way.
There’s a lot of this movie that’s dependent on the cast, so it’s a good thing they brought in a great one. The big standouts are Ruffalo and Keaton, as they have the most screen time and they also represent the team’s biggest split (I think Ruffalo is the lead character, even though Keaton is introduced first…hm). Ruffalo’s Rezendes is in favor of publishing the story as soon as they have the evidence, lest another paper get the story and send the Church into defense, but Keaton’s Robinson is determined to make sure the story have no holes, to prep for the inevitable backlash.
Both of them are excellent in their respective roles, especially Ruffalo who puts a lot of passion into his character, even if the movie usually eschews showy performances. Outside of them, the actors that stuck out are Stanley Tucci (whose career has been on a bit of a downturn lately, so I’m glad to see it recovering) who manages to pull off a performance of a character who outwardly looks like a blowhard, but is in actuality a shrewd lawyer, and who lets us see both sides, which is hard to do. The rest of the cast is also excellent, even if the ensemble doesn’t manage to find time for everyone to stand out.
The direction is so paired down and minimalist, that I almost don’t want to give it is own paragraph, even if it does have a couple of excellent long takes. So I won’t, except to say that the direction is solid, if not exactly Birdman. More importantly, for those people who worry that the subject matter might be too hard to watch need not worry. It’s impossible to avoid some elements that are disturbing, given what we’re talking about, but overall the movie is incredibly tasteful and never once feels like it’s being sensationalist or lurid.
I’ve mentioned in basically every review I’ve done this year that 2015 has been a bad year. But since October, the season has been looking up, and while the peak of that wave is still The Martian in my opinion, Spotlight is a very close second, and undoubtedly one of the best films of the year. Don’t wait till January when it’s nominated for a slew of Oscars to give it a watch.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the real strength of the cast is that none of them tried to affect a fake Boston accent.
– excellent cast and script
– unique take on the subject
– solid direction and pacing
– occasionally feels a little paired down
– subject matter can be hard to take sometimes