There’s a word for films like Spotlight: dry. Another word? Lame. That the film ultimately ends up working, spectacularly so at times, is testament to how it takes those words as points of pride. This is a film dedicated almost exclusively to thriving on the act of reading lines of text, rulers in hand, and drawing circles on sheets of paper. It eschews melodramatics, tears, manipulation, and any real human element at all, but the monomaniacal engagement with the process of journalism – rather than the specifics of the story at hand – grant Spotlight more than a smidgen of the nuts-and-bolts cinematic craft mastery of its obvious idol of worship, All the President’s Men.
One whisp of “The Boston Globe’s vigorous Spotlight team expends a year researching the horrors of the Catholic Church and pedophilia in Boston”, and I, an avid connoisseur of all things mutually exclusive to message motion pictures based on true stories, run looking for a Dario Argento film chaser to wash down the saccharine sticky sweetness of what I am surely about to watch. Even after director Tom McCarthy’s once-in-a-generation misfire The Cobbler, any respite Spotlight promised on paper is merely to the realms of the Oscarbait Kingdom, where a dozen pictures are released every year around December or so.
Yet by battening down the hatches and refusing to rise above or below the meat-and-potatoes diligence of the Spotlight team – composed of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all headed over by section editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and new transplant editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) – the film achieves a certain unflagging primacy of purpose that is refreshing in this day and age. No sidetreks to lurid Church halls, no menacing papacy, no flashbacks (thank god), few glimpses into the daily lives of its main characters. Nope, Spotlight is a movie for journalism nerds, as cleanly observant and diction-oriented in its reticent style as a fresh new headline.
The craft bolstering up the piece is almost invisible, but it’s not absent. The editing, by Tom McArdle, is probably the highlight, pushing its characters to the finish line like a cattle prod and denying the film the fussy, predetermined aura of so many Oscarbait pictures. When we do explore the toll the research takes on our investigators, it’s less a morose showpiece of treacherous sabotage than a whiff of hometown deceit. After all, almost all of them are Bostonians, and they all feel like their city and its institutions lied to them. Such tensions percolate in Spotlight, but there’s no cloying symbolism and precious little mugging for the camera; the film shoos away extramarital material and enforces the forward-thrust of despondency, the creeping sensation that this piece desperately needs to get out to the public. The characters, and the audience, don’t really have time to waste on a monologue, or seven.
Admirably, the film resists temptations aplenty, including the expected lionization of its characters, the third-act twist, and the unnecessary villain. It is a stately, buttoned-up film through and through, refusing to preach to the audience when, instead, it can just sit around in the background just being its lame self and proud of it. The very lack of personality that would signal the death-knell for the film instead buttresses its rejection of the desperate, syrupy personality any reasonable viewer might expect when the theater darkens.
Except when that relatively airless, personality-free texture sabotages the film from the ground up. For a work so insistent, and boy is it insistent at the level of explicit dialogue, that Boston is a small town, almost a village at heart, rather than a corporatized, personality-expunged monstrosity of modern industrial growth, McCarthy’s anonymous directorial style sure films Boston like the latter. There are a few lingering shots of autumnal churches, which are monolithic slabs of mystery and almost eldritch dread here. But elsewhere the board-rooms-and-side-streets style of the film could capture any city at all. Numerous, almost fetishistic shots of the Boston Globe headquarters remind us this is Boston, after all, but I was still expecting Vancouver.
The film’s uncannily observant finale, where we are informed that Boston’s inner turmoil was in fact reflective of a much wider, more faceless systemic oppression worldwide, almost masks the failures of the film as a work of personality-building and space. Temptation suggests that the whole film was building up to this one moment, a tacit omission that its “Bostonian” roots is naught but a ruse, a gesture toward our expectation that outbursts of oppression such as this can’t but be small-scale. Fair enough, but the film’s verbal commitment to its born-and-bred home-spun nature is as generous as they come, and nothing in the film, not one single shot, suggests that it doesn’t firmly believe that this Catholic affront was a personal threat to Boston specifically due to the city’s “everyone knows everyone, oh and by the way, we’re all Catholic” background.
Anyway, the anonymity of the film’s personhood is part and parcel with a larger concern about its impact: it is, in a word, almost entirely momentary. It is, frankly, an easier film to like than it is to appreciate, or if all you care about is a film performing a social service, then perhaps it is the other way around. But, either way, the film’s flash-in-the-pan concision and crystalline clarity of editing do wonders for a work about process in the moment, but they fade from memory almost as vigorously. In many circles the film has met with comparisons to All The President’s Men, or in a few parts of the world where people have simply lost their heads altogether, Citizen Kane. All are films about journalism, yes, but to compare the brisk, pleasurable Spotlight with the tour-de-force of prismatic, confounding, deconstructive visual and aural formalism in Citizen Kane, or even the reasonably grubby neo-noir hints flaring about All the President’s Men. Elevating Spotlight to the same cinematic level is more wishful thinking than thoughtful analysis, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happy with its (thoroughly respectable) position in the B-tier. It isn’t always great cinema, but it’s stellar, riveting journalism while it lasts.