A bold prediction: Tom McCarthy will be the first person since Sandra Bullock in 2010, and only the fourth person ever, to win an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year. Earlier this year, McCarthy co-wrote the widely-derided Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler, but has redeemed himself tenfold by co-penning and directing Spotlight, a whip-smart journalistic procedural that at first glance falls squarely into Oscar bait territory. There’s the central tragedy being investigated and potential dramatic stakes thereof, the giant cast that includes several prior Academy Award nominees, the fall release date, and other more subtle markers, like Masanobu Takayanagi’s warm beige lensing and a Howard Shore composing credit. But it’s ultimately a fakeout: this is an unflashy, meticulous film about rigor, ethics, and the Sisyphean nature of good journalism.
Spotlight is a nose-to-the-grindstone film by design, covering the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, all superb) and their progressive uncovering of a pattern of child abuse in the city’s archdiocese. The journalists link new information with old threads and keep poking and prying at the loose ends until the whole situation unravels. In lesser hands, this wouldn’t be enough to buoy an episode of Cold Case, much less a feature-length film. There’s also a very real risk that a toxic mix sensationalism and scenery-chewing would have undercut the film’s virtues and values. Spotlight as a whole manages to sidestep the pitfalls of Big Important Dramas (i.e. using a tragedy to collect accolades) by focusing on the nuts and bolts of putting a story together, preferring moments of quiet, doomy power to histrionics.
This level of restraint extends to the performances: the showiest affections on display are Stanley Tucci’s masterful faux-serious reading of the word “shitting” and Ruffalo’s one-two punch of a lopsided quasi-smirk and a habit of only putting the first couple of phalanges in his pocket at a time. There’s a resolute professionalism on display across the board, from the study unostentatious direction, to the performances, to the characters’ processes and interactions. The script, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, plays like the sharp, termitic counterpart to the arch white-elephant style of Aaron Sorkin. This is no accident: Singer was hired as a writer on the post-Sorkin West Wing, and here retains the show’s clip and energy while leaving out the token Sorkin smarm. Not that smarm doesn’t have it’s place (it certainly worked in The Social Network), but this isn’t a cynical movie. The thrill comes from watching dedicated, hyper-competent people right wrongs through legwork and skill.
There’s something refreshingly normal about Spotlight: it exists in a mundane universe of long hours, coffee cups, rumpled Oxfords and pleated pants. The performances are small, but they ring deep and true. The exposition is tacit rather that obtrusive. Despite the subject matter, it doesn’t have a lurid or distasteful bone in its body, though it is very adult in a hushed, nuanced kind of way. And like any great mystery film, the key is in how it handles the exploded view of process and lateral thought. It’s a poised, complex film that doesn’t patronize or preach, and if all is just in the world, will rehabilitate the concept of the prestige film, even if has the heart of a B.
Spotlight is currently in theatres everywhere.
Directed by Tom McCarthy; written my Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy; starring Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci; 128 minutes.