Spotlight is a fairly derivative film in a lot of ways. The movie, which deals with The Boston Globe’s investigation into the systemic sexual misconduct of the Catholic Church, owes an arm and a leg to the seminal classic All the President’s Men. It would be impossible to argue otherwise. Spotlight even looks like the 1976 film. Which is maybe hard to avoid when your movie is set in a similar location and deals with a similar topic, but nevertheless one particular cut – from the newspaper’s office to a warmly lit residential area – gave me a decided sense of deja vu. The similarities are all in the little things, the lifting, the movement of the cameras, the brevity of some scenes, but it makes the look of Spotlight feel decidedly indebted to the Alan J. Pakula movie. The thing is the cinematographer on All the President’s Men was Gordon Willis, one of the all time greats and, while Spotlight’s DP Masanobu Takayanagi has worked on some recognizable titles, it’s nigh on impossible to compete with Willis. In the end Spotlight doesn’t even look as good as another All the President’s Men riff, Zodiac. In fact Spotlight is probably a step or two behind both these films in every way.
However I am a brilliant writing God and my first paragraph was largely designed as a mislead. The card is in your pocket, your wallet is gone, and I really liked Spotlight. The film may be derivative of All the President’s Men, but that film functionally created a genre. Or at least helped define it. Wikipedia may call All the President’s Men a political thriller but it’s really something else entirely. It’s a docu-journo-drama. I’m sure someone else has simplified this portmanteau elsewhere but I like the amount of information communicated by my three-legged monstrosity. What’s good about Spotlight is that its genre choice perfectly matches the story it’s trying to tell. What better time to draw inspiration from a classic film about investigative journalism uncovering a major scandal than when dealing with a new and important story about investigative journalism uncovering a major scandal. The story really is perfect, with a lengthy investigation done by a committed team, and with a few shocking revelations on the way. The genre and topic align perfectly, and Spotlight does a fair job of executing this idea.
It’s not flawless. Like I said before, the visuals can’t really compete with past examples of this genre, but they are simple and straightforward, which is what you want. You don’t really want too much distracting visual flair in a movie like this, so the simple and direct camerawork is perfectly functional, and never bad. The biggest potential issue with the film is the focus on characterization. This isn’t quite like Zodiac, so while we are watching a very committed Mark Ruffalo (who is in both films, here he’s playing the Jake Gyllenhaal role) destroy his life offscreen, it’s almost incidental. It’s a fact ticked off a list, not the entire point the way it is in Zodiac. However it’s also more interested in the reactions and opinions of these characters than All the President’s Men, which is a fairly detached film. Spotlight makes the risky decision of trying to balance an objective, fact-driven look at a real story with conventional character drama. More often than not, however, I felt like these beats landed. There are one or two that felt a wee bit clumsy and unearned, but many feel like a natural part of the story. Much like the visuals it feels like the movie has dodged a problem in favour of straightforward serviceability.
Not enough movies are simply decent, and the powerful subject matter and smart approach to it makes Spotlight a pretty good watch. You could tell the film was going over well in my theatre, which seemed to be populated by a surprising number of people who were unaware of the extent of the Catholic Church’s depravity. They reacted with unfiltered shock, gasping audibly at some statistics and reveals. As someone who was aware of most of these things going in, the reveals weren’t shocking in that light, rather I thought they were well handled, well communicated, and well dramatized. The movie earned a few other notable reactions, my favourite being to Mark Ruffalo’s “good German” reference which prompted one member of the audience to cry out “whoa” at top volume. Given that the next line in the film was cautioning Ruffalo on his use of that phrase, it seemed like the movie was one step ahead of that rather easily offended fellow. Still though, most of the audience reacted less comically. As I said before, the film played well, eliciting a fair reaction from its facts without ever being exploitative or manipulative.
For those who don’t know, the film is about the systemic cover-ups of rape and sexual abuse by the Catholic Church. The film starts with a news story running about legal actions against one specific priest. This piques The Boston Globe’s new editor’s interest, and he sets the Spotlight team to the task. Essentially it’s been suggested that the accused priest may have had help in the cover-up from the Catholic Church, and the editor wants to explore this possibility. The team begins investigating, starting with the players involved in this initial case. However things begin to spiral outwards as they discover signs of more priests committing abuse, and maybe more cover-ups. They begin interviewing lawyers, victims, and even some priests. With each step they discover more and more signs. Eventually they talk to an ex-priest who worked as a psychologist for the Catholic Church, a man whose chief job was to recondition priests that had molested children and been sent on sabbatical. They ask him if their current estimate, something like fifteen priests in Boston, seems accurate. In perhaps the movie’s biggest revelation, the psychologist tells them their estimate is completely wrong. Based on the percentage of priests he’s seen, he estimates there would be something like ninety priests in the city. Where the character dilemmas come in is after this. They find proof of some of the priests’ actions, they find proof the nearest Cardinal was aware of it, but they decide to withhold the information, potentially at the risk of young lives, to find proof that the cover-ups are systemic, and that they can be traced back to the Vatican itself.
It’s a good cast playing these characters, filled with skilled award-season actors. Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton easily form the crux of the movie. Mark Ruffalo plays a pretty standard Ruffalo character. He’s quick to reach emotional heights, he’s committed to an extreme, and he’s just a little tortured. I half expected someone onscreen to compare him to a crusader, but the film was better than that. Michael Keaton plays the head of the Spotlight team, The Boston Globe’s long form investigative team, and Mark Ruffalo’s boss. He goes through some interesting developments as the movie goes along. He’s generally the one with his head on his shoulders, the one responsible for keeping everyone on task, for satisfying the editor, and for making tough decisions. Of course this is a role Michael Keaton is more than capable of playing. The Spotlight team is rounded out by Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. Both are good actors, who sell their roles well. Rachel McAdams basically plays a slightly toned down version of her True Detective character. She’s serious and lightly tortured, but generally copes with it well and keeps it to herself, as is befitting a secondary character. Also McAdams is Canadian, so props there. Brian d’Arcy James is a relatively less known face, and he brings a fatherly perspective to the proceedings that goes over well.
You may or may not have noticed my repeated use of the word serviceable. That base level skill goes a long way in the case of Spotlight. It takes a fascinating, still powerful subject and tells the story. More importantly it tells the story in a smart way, with every aspect being fairly well executed. Even more importantly than that, the film never fucks up. There are a million ways this movie could’ve misstepped. The biggest is that it easily could’ve been trite award season manipulation. If it had focused in on the characters more, if it had spent more time with the victims, if it had more directly shown the act, if it tried to skew in that direction. As it is, the movie is blunt and matter of fact, letting the events themselves bring most of the drama to the table. You don’t need embellishment to make the attempted cessation of systemic child-rape dramatic, and indeed trying to embellish the subject would’ve been crude and offensive. As it is, Spotlight manages to do everything fairly well, and just that in combination with the real events make the movie quite good. It almost cheats, telling a powerful story well and becoming more than the sum of its parts.