Now that Spotlight has been nominated for an Oscar and (currently) may be the frontrunner to win, I thought it would be a good time to see what all the fuss is about. My initial reaction is that it’s a good movie, but not really a great one. To be worthy of that Best Picture win, it would have to either advance the art of film or provide superior entertainment value, and Spotlight is made far too conventionally for the former. As for the latter… that’s what I found most disappointing.
Spotlight certainly has tension, stemming from the real life issues at play, but the film isn’t interested in dramatizing that; its subject is journalism, not child abuse. Okay, but a film about journalism is by nature a procedural, and procedurals are typically enjoyable because you want to know how the story comes out (like the wonderfully twisty British miniseries State of Play), because of the texture of the filmmaking (Zodiac comes to mind), or because of great performances (The Insider, Frost/Nixon). But here, we already know the story: that, working in relative isolation, a small team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe reported a massive story about the Catholic Priest sex abuse scandals and the Church’s role in covering them up. No suspense there. And the film is so low-key in terms of performance, writing and direction that it’s hard to find much at all there to make this a worthwhile entertainment. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy effectively and intentionally crafts a film that looks and sounds so realistic that it might as well be a documentary–although a doc would more honestly come by the film’s collection of blatant Aesoping (“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse it” is one pithy example)–but realistic is not the same thing as compelling.Spotlight has been lauded for more things it doesn’t do than what it does, it seems; yes, it is to be commended for resisting the temptation to overly dramatize the story, or to push its characters too far, or to turn the paper’s new editor** into a penny-pinching villain, or… but other films do those things for a reason, because they’re trying to build a story. Spotlight doesn’t feel like a story to me, just a number of things that happen, some of them more difficult or interesting than others.
Perhaps the problem is that the conflicts themselves are essentially off-screen. I kept comparing the film to All the President’s Men, also a movie about dogged reporters pursuing an increasingly important story, but that film has more compellingly written conflicts. In President’s, they’re meeting in shadowy garages and looking over their shoulders as a conspiracy directly pressures their sources to silence. In Spotlight the targets of the journalists’ investigation apply, at most, gentle pressure and subtle influence. There are no bullets placed in mailboxes. No one even considers bowing to pressure, or faces consequences for that lack of consideration. Again and again, emotional consequences are brought up but unexplored (other than Mark Ruffalo’s character, who gradually degrades under pressure)–most egregiously in one particular instance involving Rachel McAdam’s character. A reporter on the team, she’s unwilling to tell her very religious mother what she’s been working on; when the story finally comes out, she gives a copy to her mother to read. In another film this might lead to a compelling scene or an illuminating exchange, but here we simply see that the mother is upset at what she’s read. End of scene.
Performance is key to a film like this, and once again, Spotlight is good but flawed. Liev Schreiber gives a gentle, subtle, nuanced performance that’s the best in the film and probably the best thing I’ve ever seen from him, too, and Stanley Tucci turns in fine work as an irascible lawyer who reveals and endears himself without every really dropping his barriers. But the rest of the cast is hampered by a script that gives them too little context and too little to do. Keaton, for instance, has a lot of screentime but relatively little chance for emotional shading; most of his performance is spent receiving or giving exposition, and it’s not until the last thirty minutes or so of the film that he really gets something worthwhile. Ruffalo is the closest thing Spotlight has to a lead, and he hits every inch of the ball the movie tees up for him at the end, even if the pitch is at best an outfield double. But he’s hamstrung by a lack of character specificity that leads him to deliver several unbelievable reactions. Other characters, including the rest of the Spotlight team, suffer without significant development or material to work with; and John Slattery is just utterly wasted (something that sadly seems to happen more often than not in his career outside of Mad Men). Again, this is all a result of the film’s overall decision to make a molehill out of its mountain-sized material. It would be too “fictional” to give its characters significant personal subplots, and too unrealistic for them to have either compelling personalities or dramatically satisfying material. This decision leaves an excellent ensemble cast generally adrift; most (especially secondary reporter Rachel McAdams) are nice, but just… there. Nothing more.
Spotlight isn’t an empty film. It has a lot of things to say about the scandal itself; I think the film would have made a good op-ed, drawing bright lines of immorality around those individuals or instances who covered up the abuse, and arguing that, when it comes to the Catholic Church, Boston is a company town. The film skillfully presents a tense situation for its characters, including the looming economic realities faced by the paper (here the film’s light approach is very welcome, especially after heavy-handed depictions of the same industry forces in shows like Daredevil and House of Cards), but since we know the outcome, it’s a rather formless sort of apprehension–like many of the film’s apparent set-ups, no real conflict or consequences ever materializes. (Another example is the team’s fear of their story leaking–but despite several potentially important mishandlings of information, nothing ever comes of this.) Finally, Spotlight clearly and admiringly portrays the process of journalism, from knocking on doors to building spreadsheets to hunting for quotes and confirmations. This is where its heart really lies, as demonstrated by the scenes that frame the story–at the beginning, power conspires to sweep a young victim aside, while in the end, many more victims have found a public voice, thanks to a very different kind of power. But what does the film have to say about the people whose efforts force that shift in circumstance? Very little I didn’t know.
Despite decent performances, good editing, and some nice touches throughout, by failing to develop its conflicts, characters, or style in meaningful ways, Spotlight ends up feeling far less than the sum of its parts–too obvious to be revealing, too restrained to be compelling, too conventional to be incendiary. In fact, I bet the actual reporting would be much more interesting to read. There’s a scene in the movie where the new editor uses his red pen to cross a word out of a story, explaining, “Another adjective,” and he might as well be the screenwriters paring their pages down to the bare minimum. In the end, I think Spotlight could have used a few more adjectives.
*Check out McCarthy’s The Visitor if you’re looking for a great low-key character story, centered around an excellent leading performance by “hey, it’s that guy” character actor Richard Jenkins.