Spotlight is a movie that the more artsy visually oriented type of critic might look down on, and the more screenplay/acting oriented critic will love. Even though I often strive to be part of the former group, I will admit to really appreciating this movie. It’s tough to remember sometimes that movies are more than their visuals; that sometimes you can film people in a room talking and have it be riveting stuff.
Spotlight, the story of a special investigative division of the Boston Globe (called, you guessed it, Spotlight) uncovering a widespread pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church, is largely made up of reporter movie tropes, most of which feature people in a room talking. When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) becomes the new editor of the Globe in the early 2000s, he aims to make it more “essential to its readers.” To that end, he pushes the Spotlight team, headed up by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), to look into the case, and to their surprise and dismay it goes much farther than any of them realize. Filling out the rest of the team is Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matty Carol (Brian D’Arcy James), along with the assistant editor of the Globe, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery).
The film is largely one of journalistic process, following the introduction of Marty into the environment of the paper to the publication of the first article on the scandal. Comparisons to All the President’s Men are unavoidable, and I haven’t seen that movie in forever, but I recognize the familiar newsroom design (also shown in Fincher’s Zodiac). I will say that this movie makes a hell of a lot more sense and is easier to follow than All the President’s Men, for what that’s worth. The sense of paranoia and conspiracy is still there, but doesn’t overwhelm the picture, probably because the case is pretty clear once all is said and done. There are a lot of wonderful sequences extolling the virtues of the hard work of these reports, and save a few showy speeches, the film never goes too far with this type of patting on the back.
Though it is mostly concerned with journalism itself, the intense subject matter the journalists are dealing with is unavoidable. They have to grapple with people who are reliving the most horrible moments in their lives, and it can take its toll. Luckily, we don’t see too much of it, as it would be easy to go for shock value with this material. There is also the insiders club view of Boston that we get, as nobody who lives there wants to rat on the church, it being such an important institution. The lines between people who grew up in Boston and people who moved there become drawn and then erased in an interesting way, though I don’t think we needed quite so many references to it in the dialogue.
For all the praise I’m heaping on this movie, there was one clear drawback for me. It pains me to type this, but Spotlight marks the first case in my movie going career of being disappointed in a Mark Ruffalo performance. I’ve never seen him so out of step with the other actors and the type of movie that he’s in. Usually Ruffalo is more of a laid back performer; he appears so natural onscreen that you think he is whoever he’s playing. I could see the effort he was putting in here. He adds in all of these weird nervous and angry ticks to his performance, which nobody in the whole rest of the movie does. We have the rest of the cast turning in very straightforward, get the job done performances, while Ruffalo is over in a corner weirdly scrunching up his face, tilting his head to the side, and hunching over himself. He seems more like he’s doing an impression of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master than working with the other actors in the movie. What he’s doing could have potentially worked in a movie like that, but doesn’t here at all. He’s so much angrier than the other characters, which seems to be on purpose, but nevertheless doesn’t fit in with the rest of the acting or the tone of the film at all. (Sidenote: The screening I was at had a Q and A with the real life reporters afterwards, and the actual Mike Rezendes didn’t do any of that weird stuff, so that’s no excuse.)
But what wonderful performances do literally everyone else in this movie turn in! They have such a great get the job done quality to them, when you glimpse the undercurrents of emotion they are quickly suppressed as the characters refocus and get back to their jobs. Everyone works efficiently and economically, and it’s really great to see. I especially liked Stanley Tucci, who dials back the humor quite well here, and Liev Schreiber as the supposed “Boston outsider” who just wants to do the right thing. John Slattery is basically playing Roger from Mad Men except he actually does his job and isn’t a total asshole, so it was nice to see him here even though he’s not doing anything groundbreaking. Brian D’Arcy James doesn’t have a ton to do as his character is sort of on the fringe, but when it’s his turn in the spotlight (pun intended) he shines. Rachel McAdams is great here, as well, very in step with the rest of the cast. I wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed with what Micheal Keaton does here, but I wasn’t not impressed either, if that makes sense.
The film does add in a weird dose of humor than at some points works really well to alleviate the dark subject matter, but at other times seems kind of off-color. They’re all quick moments so they don’t drag the movie down too much, but there are a lot of them so it becomes very strange after a while. For example, Matty figures out that a house nearby his is housing a lot of pedophile priests that are supposedly being rehabilitated. He understandably is nervous about this so he takes a picture of the house and puts it on his fridge with a note to his kids telling them to stay away. We keep coming back to it throughout the second half of the movie, Matty being worried about this house, and I don’t know why, but it feels as if its supposed to be funny just because we keep coming back to it so much. It’s not funny though, so the audience I was with starting laughing and then was very unsure about the laughter that did escape from them.
Overall, I really appreciated the film and especially the cast that works so well together. It seems like they are all on the same page (except Ruffalo for some reason) and fit in with the overall tone of the movie. If there was ever a shoo-in for best ensemble cast I think this is it. Spotlight, understandably as it takes place much closer to present day, also did a much better job of incorporating Boston locations than Black Mass, so points for that. The script might make a few missteps, but overall McCarthy makes people talking in rooms compelling enough.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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