Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
Director: Tom McCarthy
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Certain films exist simply to tell an important story; interested mostly in dispensing information in an efficient manner while simultaneously juggling thematic concerns and character. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, concerning the 2001 sex abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Church and the undaunted journalists at The Boston Globe tasked with covering the unfolding bombshell, is one such film. In that sense, it patiently doles out information surrounding the scandal with the kind of precision which will inevitably draw comparisons to All the Presidents Men. Unlike Alan J. Pakula's classic political thriller, however, Spotlight lacks a sense of cinematic authorship. This is all to say that McCarthy's well-meaning picture, which has a talented ensemble cast running around frantically jotting down notes on legal pads, often plays like a slightly elevated Cable TV drama. Of course, many will contend that the film has no business giving us stylistic atmosphere since the true story is what matters, and that auteurist concerns would only take away from the simple power of the subject matter. This rebuttal, though understandable, is a misconception of the ways in which cinematic language--composition, framing, camera movement, lighting choices, editing--can greatly enhance a narrative no matter how important the details may be.
To be fair, Spotlight does get many things right, especially the way it communicates how tight-knit communities can create a mob mentality. The fact that dozens of priests got away with pedophilia as the diocese moved them around the city while those in high-ranking positions knew about it is disturbing beyond belief, and the film's screenplay, written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is particularly adept at capturing this dilemma. There are varying reactions amongst the Globe journalists (known as the "Spotlight" team) to each new shocking development, with everything kicking off as new executive editor Marty Baron (Live Schrieber, underplaying nicely), arrives to ostensibly revive the dwindling newspaper. A Jewish transplant from Florida who spearheads the investigation into the church's offenses, Baron is an outsider who has a razor-sharp vision of what's lying in plain sight. Then there's the head of the Spotlight team Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a Boston native who feels torn into directions; on the one hand, wishing to appease the community he grew up in, while on the other, staying true to his ethical duties as a journalist. Other members, such as Michael Rezendes (a twitchy Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), are more interested in simply uncovering the horrendous truth no matter what the consequences.
What makes Spotlight more interesting than the average underdog newsroom drama is that it pits workaholic journalism against a monolithic system wielding unbelievable power and influence. There's something undeniably engaging about watching the team gather information, knock on doors, pile over old file cabinets, and gradually realize there's an insidious darkness lurking within the Catholic Church as well as inside the hearts and minds of normal Bostonians who simply don't want to accept something this tragic. But in constructing a narrative that believes so strongly in the mundaneness of investigative journalism, McCarthy ends up turning the journalists into chess pieces to be moved around as the true story dictates. Despite a stacked cast, most of the characters comes across as little more than archetypes, or worse yet, amalgamations of their real-life counterparts. The actors labor hard to bring idiosyncratic touches to their performances, (or in the case of Ruffalo, going a bit too hard with Jake Gyllenhaal-esque mannerisms) but the script gives them very little to do beyond becoming mouthpieces for the film's informational overload.
One could argue that the muted restraint here is a selling point, especially since the story could have very easily gone into melodramatic territory, but McCarthy's impersonal direction means that Spotlight actually has the opposite problem. It's too safe, too streamlined, too enamored with it's own ordinariness to bother with formal visual techniques or establishing a sense of place. Perhaps the coda--a sprawl of post-script detailing other communities devastated by similar cases of molestation by Catholic priests--is really what McCarthy is after; a kind of sweeping look at institutionalized corruption which must be exposed. This is all well and good, but doesn't exactly translate into exciting cinema. Instead, what we have here is a compelling narrative with intelligent thematic issues at play which rarely rises above a hum, complimented by Howard Shore's repetitively somber piano-laden score. Even an aspirational treatment of a true-life story deserves more than simply running down a check-list of procedural rules and a few auxiliary shots of churches looming ominously in the background as children frolic on a playground. It deserves something more than just giving us the facts. It deserves, especially concerning material this incendiary, a cinematic pulse.