We haven’t had a good film about journalism in what feels like decades. A part of the reason for this is that people don’t have the same level of respect for the media that they had in the past. Before internet culture, people saw reporters and journalist as the intelligent heroes in All the Presidents Men and The China Syndrome, using there intellect to bring out the truth. Nowadays, it’s hard not to see the media as it’s shown in the once thought to be preposterous world of Network. TMZ, Fox News and CNN live on shoddy reporting that exploits tragedies, rushes stories before finding facts and generally manipulates the viewers. Modern mainstream media has become so bad that people go to more comedic shows for actuals news. It says something when the best movie about reporting that I’ve seen in years was Nightcrawler.
So while there are several flaws that keep Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight from being perfect or even great in my mind, I can at least understand why this film will be a huge breath of fresh air for audiences and reporters alike. After duds like Truth and True Story, we have a movie that gives a truly heroic portrait of journalists and the steps they take to research a story and affect the culture surrounding them.
In 2002, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery) decided to begin a secret investigation into sexual abuse involving Catholic priests in the state of Massachusetts. They originally believe there to be five priests that have been covered up by the church but the list of people expands as more investigating is done.
I think one of the few things people will agree on with this movie is its intelligence. The movie tries to really explore every nook and cranny of how the story was handled. You get to see all the details from them talking about choosing this subject in a board room to them going back to work after publishing the story in there paper. You watch them go through thousands of pages looking for guilty priests and you see the conversations they have with lawyers, friends, victims and sometimes even the perpetrators in the hopes of finding out more information. The movie is about capturing all of these little things that they had to do in order to release this story and if anything, the movie gives you a new found respect for the work journalists go through.
What’s impressive about this movie is that you would assume that it would be relatively boring to watch for two hours and ten minutes. I was suspicious about a movie being made about the subject in the first place and it didn’t help that before Spotlight I saw Truth, an ungodly long and boring movie about the news.
To be honest, I was a little bored near the start of the movie. Not a lot of things were happening and I was worried that the film would be like this for the rest of its running time. But as the story develops and they gather more information, the movie becomes faster and more thrilling until it’s suddenly over. Now having seen the entire movie, this is one of the rare times where I compliment a part of the film for being boring. This transformation from slower, more atmospheric storytelling into non-stop information is a creative and accurate representation of what it was like for the people who were working on this story. In the beginning, there might be a lot of dead ends and useless clues. But all it takes is for a few of these tiny clues to piece together for you to start picking up on bigger and bigger material to work with.
Besides its sheer competence when it came to handling the story, Spotlights biggest hit is in the overall message it tries to give. What this movie tries to heroize is a rarity in modern pop culture. The heroes in Spotlight aren’t big, larger than life super heroes who save the day with over the top action scenes and gigantic speeches about how what they do is the right thing. The heroes in Spotlight work on the bottom floor, they take the bus to work and they spend their nights researching in libraries. They create answers and they help victims with their quiet intellect. And after hundreds of hours of perfecting until they have something they can give to the public, they rest and then there back on Monday, sitting at their desks finding out about a new topic they can give to the world. It isn’t pretty or filled with stirring speeches. But at the end of the day, the smart, quiet people are the ones who get results and create change.
It’s so easy to make a movie that tries to glamorize heroism and shows a hero as being someone who does the biggest thing or says something the loudest. Current mainstream news certainly seems to believe this. You can’t turn on Fox News these days without finding some new thing for them to get angry about without providing any evidence. But real journalism and being a real hero looks like Spotlight, it’s slow, detailed and calculated. It’s quiet, silent figures performing a thankless job not in the hopes of achieving accolades or honor, but a beautiful outcome that can hopefully in some small way inch us towards a better future for everyone around us. Stanley Tucci excellently portrays Michael Garabedian, an attorney for sexually abused children that helps the Globe with their case. At the end of the movie, he shares a brief moment of kindness with Mark Ruffallo’s character and then he goes right back to his job in a small room helping two kids who were sexually abused. I think that quietly devastating sequence is the heart of Spotlight.
That’s not to say the movie is a perfect delivery of that theme. In the process of showing the creation of the article in the most accurate and complex way possible, it sometimes doesn’t create the same level of standards for its characters. I hate to talk about real people like this because I have to assume there all good people but in the case of this movie I found many of the main characters to be underwritten. The smaller characters like Garabedian and the abuse victims are very well written because they are more blatantly showing the subject matter but I think the movie gives a lot of exposition to everyone who worked on the Spotlight team and it makes the movie more distant and cold. The movie spends so much time giving them information to tell the audience that they don’t have that much time to reveal anything about their personal lives or even some of the tiny quirks that they might have.
I honestly can’t tell you anything about Ruffalo and McAdams’ characters beyond the fact that they’re reporters. The movie tries to make them more calculated to show quiet heroism but it goes a little too far and it created a distance between me and the main characters. I shouldn’t feel like I’m waiting for the supporting characters to show up but that’s how this film felt to me. In one of the weakest scenes in the movie, Ruffalo desperately tries to breathe life into an absolutely one note character in a rant that no doubt will be shown at next year’s Oscars ceremony. I have nothing against him as an actor but it was painfully obvious how he was trying to add things that weren’t there for the most mediocre character in the movie.
I also found Thomas McCarthy’s direction to be perfectly fine but nothing to write home about. It’s not at all a poorly made movie; it’s well edited and it has great cinematography. At the same time, McCarthy doesn’t add the extra kick to this movie that could’ve turned it from good to outstanding. He does a competent job with spotlight but that’s it, he does a competent job. He does give any nuances, quirks or originality to the screenplay and he doesn’t seem to have any real vision besides just shooting the movie. The music is repetitive, generic and distracting which is something that can seriously damage a movie in my eyes. McCarthy doesn’t show any creativity with this movie and I don’t think he gives Spotlight anything that couldn’t have been done by another filmmaker.
Spotlight is a film that’s much easier to appreciate than enjoy. I respect the accurate portrayal of journalism and the way it advocates for smarter, less reactionary reporting. I think the movie tries to present a unique perspective on what it means to be a hero. Unfortunately, I think there are too many things in the movie that I found to be middle of the road. The story is great but the main characters are forgettable. McCarthy’s direction is fine but he doesn’t give the movie any of the heart or soul it needed to take it home. Spotlight is very competent and simply going down a checklist, this is a movie that seems to do everything right. I just feel like the movie lacks a heart and an intimacy that’s necessary for me to fall in love with it.
Release Date: 11/25/2015
Directed by: Tom McCarthy