Spotlight (Open Road Films, R)

Spotlight 75This isn’t a movie of good guys and bad guys, despite the subject matter, but is more a study of human fallibility.





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One thing I like to discuss is characterization in movies versus that in television. As an art form, I’m firmly on the side of movies, and rarely ever find much in the way of merit in most television shows (which, yes, extends to most of the generally-admired modern cable shows—Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, True Detective—which hold little or no interest for me), but one thing I have to give TV is its characterization. With a handful of exceptions, characterization even on not-great TV shows tends to be stronger than characterization in even very good movies, in large part simply because TV shows have more time to draw deep, round characters.

The high watermark of characterization in an audio-visual medium is the HBO series The Wire (which is an outlier, in terms of it being a much-respected TV series that I do actually like and think deserves the praise it has received), which has a large cast of characters, virtually all of whom are compelling, and almost none of which fall into easy categories—each person embodies both the good and the bad about the human endeavor, all at once, in the same way that people in real life generally do. Season five of The Wire features a news reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy), who fakes sources to make his stories more interesting and publishable than they otherwise would be—newspapers are fading away, and journalists have to scratch and claw harder than ever to keep their jobs and/or get noticed. Mr. McCarthy, who is fine as an actor in that arc, is also a director, and one who historically is an underappreciated gem in American cinema; he’s behind such strong, fresh fare as 2003’s The Station Agent (the breakout movie for now-HBO stalwarts Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale), 2007’s The Visitor, and 2011’s Win Win. His 2014 Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler was his first failure in the opinion of most, but really it’s more that it’s a strong Adam Sandler film, but a weak McCarthy film.

But now McCarthy has totally redeemed himself (not that he really needed to) with Spotlight, which, as of this writing, is widely favored as the most likely film to win Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, and will also likely deserve it if it does win. It’s a real feat: a non-showy journalist procedural, and one of the best examples of Wire-style characterization seen in movies yet. Nice to know that McCarthy is able to parlay his experiences as an actor into being a better writer/director.

Spotlight focuses on the true story of the Boston Globe breaking the child molestation ring (and subsequent cover-up) that had been going on in the Catholic Church for decades. On paper, it’s not the type of thing that sounds terribly cinematic—lots of people talking in poorly-lit rooms, very little action—but McCarthy makes it breathe, and it never feels like you’re watching a filmed play.

A great deal of credit belongs to the film’s ensemble cast, all of whom are strong. The best performances come from Mark Ruffalo as the mannered, intrepid journalist Mike Rezendes, who does some of the more difficult legwork and source-cracking of the case, and Stanley Tucci as the lawyer Mitch Garabedian, whom Rezendes longs to get talking. Elsewhere we have the mid-comeback Michael Keaton as Robby Robinson, the editor of the Spotlight section of the Globe (Spotlight being devoted to longer-form investigative journalism); Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, who pushes Spotlight to look deeper into the potential scandal before much about it was known; Rachel McAdams as Spotlight journalist Sacha Pfeiffer; and Mad Men’s John Slattery as Ben Bradlee, Jr., who is more or less against any attacks on the Catholic Church from the start, given Boston’s large Catholic population and the wide-reaching respect for the church as an institution in the community.

These actors, alongside a deep and similarly strong large supporting cast, really bring to life the complicated characters McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer have written. This isn’t a movie of good guys and bad guys, despite the subject matter, but is more a study of human fallibility—like on The Wire, all of our characters are compromised in one way or the other, and yet struggle to do what they think is best, both for them and for the world. It’s a stunning, intelligent, rich achievement, and one that I’ll be sure to bring up as an example of the rare case of complex movie characterization when I inevitably have that discussion in the future. | Pete Timmermann

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