One appreciates how difficult it is to make a successful film like Spotlight. Yes, you have an A-list cast at your disposal, and yes, it’s Oscar season. They’re going for it. You have a true story that is quite literally already recorded for the public eye, plain as day, and besides the revelatory Spotlight newspaper clippings you have a vast backlog of coverage on the coverage, stories about the story. Yes, most of the real people who took part in that story are still alive and willing to participate in making a film about their achievements. And yes, the crucial win is already firmly in place: this is a highly relevant story, stranger than fiction but all the more urgent for being the truth.
Granted, there’s one massive pressure point in the expectations set by the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Director Tom McCarthy (“you” from the first paragraph) must have felt what Adam McKay felt in directing The Big Short, what David O. Russell felt in directing Joy, what Danny Boyle felt with Steve Jobs, what Don Cheadle felt with Miles Ahead. Any director dealing with the poster tagline Based On a True Story must ask “am I getting this right?”
McCarthy’s job is way harder, though, because the subject matter can’t simply be boiled down to biographical and, thus, actually ends up bearing little resemblance to the raucous Big Short, the raucous Joy, the raucous Steve, the raucous Miles. Spotlight can’t be raucous, meaning it can’t take as many liberties in getting it right. The people portrayed in the film are still alive, still in pain, still affected by the events we’re viewing over popcorn and soda. Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies would be the only other Oscar nominee that would fit in a category with Spotlight, but Spielberg’s story is a) far larger, international in scope of consequence, b) far older, having had a solid half-century to set itself in celluloid, and c) more action-packed. Crass as it may be to call attention to that last point, there it is: Spotlight does not have the benefit of airborne attacks, global espionage, or Tom Hanks.
All three of those points — relatively constrained storyline, relatively recent storyline, relatively Tom Hanks-less storyline — could be major reasons to doubt the efficacy of Spotlight, despite how “easy” it all may seem given the cast and the awards-season timing. Strangely, the fact that McCarthy did his damnedest to pull it off is now being counted as a point against the film. “Competent” is the word one sees most often in reviews of the film, clearly written with a tone that evokes rolled eyes, watch-checking, boredom. Spotlight progresses in exactly the way you’d expect, the criticism goes, and thus leaves no room to be surprising or groundbreaking. It’s a compelling story told by way of compelling characters, but ugh, it’s so competent.
At best, I think, Spotlight overcomes that criticism (whatever its frequency nowadays) in a handful of characters that are well-drawn and well-acted. Rachel McAdams is suitably inquisitive as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci suitably flapped as the heretofore-unflappable editor and lawyer sucked in to the Spotlight investigation. Liev Schreiber is particularly watchable as the new Globe boss Martin Baron, stepping on eggshells so as not to offend any lifetime Bostonians while simultaneously immovable from his stance on doing his civic duty. These are all capable actors doing what they do best (“being competent”) and, in Schreiber’s case, doing more than what they do best. He’s more than just competent; he’s a memorable character.
And Mark Ruffalo absolutely takes the cake in this regard. If you remember anyone from Spotlight, it’s Mike Rezendes. As with Foxcatcher, Ruffalo surprises by injecting a somewhat brutish-seeming guy with real heart. Rezendes is the bulldog, the guy who jumps at the chance to interview the guy no one else wants to interview, and Ruffalo’s vigor is admittedly probably matched by everyone else in the cast — one assumes you don’t make the cut for the Spotlight team in the first place if you don’t have vigor. Heart, however, is not a prerequisite, and yet Ruffalo’s Rezendes has it in spades anyway. His speech about a part of him always thinking he’d return to church someday is fantastically written and fantastically played by Ruffalo. It’s heartbreaking precisely because we’ve seen that heart at work for the entirety of the film.
Sadly, Michael Keaton has no such time to shine. Somehow the ostensible leader is the flattest of the bunch, and this is likely where the negative connotation of competent arises, incubates, and then gets applied to the whole movie.
So Spotlight isn’t the best movie of the year (whatever the Academy Awards make us believe come the ceremonies) but it’s still at times a compelling real-life tale due to those characters that linger after the credits roll. It’s not allowed to take the creative liberties of Big Short, Joy, Steve Jobs, Miles Ahead, Bridge of Spies, or most other biopics from this year in film, but in a way that’s Spotlight‘s strength. The job of Spotlight is to tell the truth, as plainly as day, and so it’s fitting that Spotlight do the same.
Also, aside from Black Mass and the brilliant-looking film below, they’ve got the best accents over there at the Globe.