Spotlight is the kind of film I would probably review as part of a 8- or 10-review package, but for the fact that, as it stands now, it’s a solid front-runner for Best Picture and the overwhelming front-runner for Best Original Screenplay. And for that, I need to discuss it in greater detail. Because I don’t totally agree with or even understand its status as such.
Now, this isn’t a case like Argo. This doesn’t fall laughably short of Best Picture status. I saw it a second time, in order to gain a more objective opinion of it, and I must say–it is a pretty good film. But a masterpiece it is not.
It’s good history. It’s not great drama.
Spoilers; TW child abuse.
A prologue set in 1976 shows how the Catholic Church in Boston kept priests who molested children–in this case, Fr. John Geoghan–safe from criminal persecution.
We then jump ahead to 2001, where the Boston Globe newspaper is gaining a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). The choice of Baron raises a few eyebrows; he’s not a Bostonian, he’s Jewish (in a majority-Catholic city), and he’s seen by the staff as cold and detached. He meets with Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), head of the “Spotlight” investigative reporting team, and does little to ease Robby’s fears that Spotlight will be the victim of potential cutbacks.
At a meeting with the editorial staff, Baron notes that a small piece was run on the arraignment of Geoghan, who had been accused of abuse numerous times and, rather than being removed wholly from parish duties, was sent from parish to parish, resulting in the abuse of more and more children. Baron wants the Globe to dig deeper into this story, which will require publishing certain documents submitted as evidence.
He’s told that the documents are under seal, and to gain access to them, the Globe will have to go to court; in a manner of speaking, they will have to sue the Church, which in Boston is tantamount to suing God.
Baron insists, and meets with Robby and editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), asking if Spotlight would be willing to suspend their current project in order to focus on the Church’s handling of child abuse. Although Robby is a bit reluctant, his team–Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)–are more enthusiastic, and so the process begins.
Rezendes sets his sights on Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer and gadfly who has been fighting the Church on behalf of the victims, and who is initially reluctant to speak to Rezendes, knowing that the Church is keeping an eye on him. Pfeiffer contacts and speaks to victims, getting their testimony on how they were abused and how the Church discouraged them from speaking out. Carroll (whom the film often treats as a bit of an afterthought) looks into the “treatment centers” where the Church sends abusive priests, and discovers that one is right around the corner from his home.
The team speaks to Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a victim and the leader of a victims’ support group, who informs them that he had contacted the Globe with information about the abuse and cover-ups years earlier, but had been ignored. They also contact Richard Sipe (Richard Jenkins, uncredited), a former priest turned psychotherapist who has studied pedophilia in the priesthood, and when they ask if the 13 abusive priests they’ve discovered so far comprise the extent of the scandal, Sipe tells them the number is far too low–as much as 6% of the priesthood, he says, have abused children.
This would work out to around 90 priests in the Boston area, and the Spotlight team goes over recent Church directories, identifying euphemisms for priests who have been pulled from parish duty for abuse (“Sick Leave” and so forth), ultimately compiling a list of 87 potential abusers.
Confirming this figure, however, requires the cooperation of Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) and Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), attorneys working on behalf of the Church, who are rather reluctant to jeopardize their bar status–especially when, as MacLeish reveals, he had informed the Globe of the cover-ups years earlier.
However, in spite of these roadblocks and the gentle pressure from various quarters to back off the story in recognition of the Church’s role in Boston society (especially from Peter Conley (Paul Guilfoyle)), Spotlight continues plugging away at the story, seeking to prove not only the fact of the abuse and the existence of a cover-up, but that Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) was complicit in the cover-up. Eventually, the documents are unsealed, proving Law’s complicity, and the story is published, with a phone number at the end for readers to contact Spotlight regarding cases of abuse.
On the day the story is published, Robby and Rezendes arrive at the Globe offices, finding them oddly quiet, but discover that Spotlight’s phones are ringing off the hook. A post-script tells us that the Globe published over 600 stories on the abuse scandal in Boston, and that abuse scandals have subsequently been uncovered in hundreds of parishes around the world.
You’ll note that my summary focused less on the characters and more on the sequence of events. In brief, such is the strength of Spotlight–as a look at what happened, it’s quite effective. But it comes up a little short when we get into why and how.
We’re told a lot–how the Church and clergy were viewed as godlike, how the Church exerts such influence in Boston as to rise above the law, how voices were raised against the abuse years earlier, only to be ignored–but we’re not shown much of it. It makes for a film which is lacking in real cinema.
I write this knowing that Spotlight is a strong contender for several Oscars. As a Picture contender…I can live with it. The fact that this could be a winner when All the President’s Men isn’t (amusingly, it could end up competing against Creed, the sixth sequel to the film which beat AtPM 39 years since) is irksome, but the Academy probably won’t make the right choice three years in a row. They’ll make the Academy choice. Most other critics groups have. It could be worse. (Joy seems to be DOA, which probably precludes it being worse.)
As an Original Screenplay contender (the script is by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy) and the nearly-guaranteed winner, I’m more resigned in my acceptance. I created a third Screenplay category for my own awards, Factually-Based Screenplay, to allow for the fact that scripts such as these are adapted, whether from history or from specific texts. And even in that category, the script for Spotlight comes in third at present, behind the excellent Bridge of Spies and the problematic but fairly unique Steve Jobs (and I have to imagine The Big Short will bump it to fourth place).
It’s not a bad script. It’s a decent script which takes real people and real events and arranges them into a coherent narrative. I can’t speak for its accuracy–oddly, Slate has yet to do one of their fact vs. fiction pieces on it–but I can’t say the film strained my credulity in any remarkable way. Probably things are streamlined a bit and there’s some character compositing going on, but compared to something like Argo (I need to stop picking on that film, don’t I?), it rings true enough.
The dialogue is fine, if not especially quotable. Quotability should hardly be the goal of a screenplay dealing with such a serious issue, but it adds to my opinion that, even if it wins Best Picture, Spotlight won’t be much remembered outside of that fact.
The script also doesn’t delve as deeply into its characters (even if they are depictions of real people) as much as I’d like. There are glimmers of characterization in the script, but the film really lucked out by having a cast that was able to flesh out these figures as well as they did. It’s really the characters around the edges of the story who get the most attention: Garabedian, Saviano, MacLeish–they are more vividly drawn, frankly, than Rezendes, Pfeiffer, or Carroll. (Robby has a little more going for him, but that’s because he’s really the closest thing the film has to a lead.)
The most compelling scenes in the film, in fact, are those in which the victims share their stories…and one where we hear from the other side. Saviano frames his own story as reflecting the awe inspired by the clergy and the way in which abuse can precede by increments. Another victim (Brian Chamberlain) explains how he was abused in the wake of his father’s suicide. Yet another (Michael Cyril Creighton) tells Pfeiffer how his abuser initially helped him to come to terms with his homosexuality (“he told me it was okay to be gay”). And late in the film, Robby speaks to an old classmate (from the Catholic school he attended), who says that he never even told his wife about what was done to him.
And then there’s the scene where Pfeiffer speaks to a former priest (Richard O’Rourke), who openly, even blithely, admits to having abused children, but emphasizes that because he derived no pleasure from these acts, he is not guilty of any crime. His sister soon arrives and bundles him away, ordering Pfeiffer off her doorstep, but the surreal openness of his confession–making no distinction between moral and legal crime–is quite jolting.
These scenes are the film’s most immediate and powerful, and most genuinely dramatic; there’s some drama in the discovery of the extent of the abuse, and in the fine lines Spotlight and the Globe must tread to avoid being outmaneuvered by the Church or scooped by rival papers, but the scenes of painful personal revelation simply carry more weight.
Comparing the film to All the President’s Men really does it no favors. Where one could believe that Woodward and Bernstein were in real danger for digging into Watergate, we never feel like the Spotlight team is in the same level of jeopardy. And where the story of the Watergate conspiracy might have faded away completely if it weren’t for Woodstein’s reporting, one almost gets the feeling that everyone but Spotlight knows what’s going on.
Since we’re still talking about Spotlight the Oscar contender, we should mention Tom McCarthy. It’s amusing to think that in the same year the same director could be responsible for one of the most reviled (The Cobbler) and admired films of the year, but until I’ve seen The Cobbler, I can’t say how it compares. I haven’t seen any of his previous films, either, but that’s beside the point.
Certainly, I’d be baffled and a little dismayed if McCarthy were to win, as his direction is for the most part totally unremarkable. He does pull off a few good scenes, especially towards the end (there’s a montage set to “Silent Night” which is very well done indeed), and his work never slips below adequacy, but there are few really good moments of filmmaking on display; it might as well have been made for HBO, for all the cinematic flair it boasts.
McCarthy may not dress up the material unnecessarily, but I could used a scene or two less of people filing into a room, having a brief meeting, and leaving, and a scene or two more of real suspense (or introspection). To compare Spotlight to All the President’s Men again, McCarthy’s work here doesn’t hold a candle to Alan J. Pakula’s there.
Tom McArdle’s editing might also be an awards contender; it’s adequate, especially in the aforementioned montage, but nothing worth getting excited over. Howard Shore’s low-key, piano-heavy score feels vaguely chintzy; it will probably not get nominated. Masanobu Takayanagi shot two Boston-set dramas this year, but the other film (Black Mass) is by far the more visually dynamic.
That leaves the cast, and I’d like to finish with them, because I’d like to finish on a high note. Neither I nor the Academy have an award for Best Ensemble, but many other awards groups do, and there are few films which make a better case for such an award than Spotlight. The individual performances, by and large, may not quite be awards-caliber, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The best performance, and the one which could be best be argued as a lead (the New York Film Critics Circle certainly thought so), is Keaton’s. He makes Robby a figure of dogged determination and unassuming integrity, a man who comes to realize just how much complicity there is to go around, and if it’s not a virtuoso piece of work like Birdman was, it’s fresh evidence of his considerable talent, and if the Academy nominated him, I wouldn’t mind a bit.
On the other hand, Ruffalo’s performance rubbed me the wrong way initially, and even on repeat viewing is a more erratic piece of work than I hoped for. His twitchy, loping physicality and strange, mumbling voice (he sounds like he’s chewing on a piece of bread at times) come off as tiresomely self-conscious, and it’s only his work in the film’s third act, especially a pair of impassioned monologues, which managed to impress me. Given my regard for Ruffalo’s work in Foxcatcher, I found his performance here to be a massive disappointment.
Better is McAdams, who’s very believable as a reporter and plays Pfeiffer’s internal struggle (she intermittently attends church with her grandmother, and fears what effect the revelations will have on her) quite well. There’s not much to be said of her work besides its verisimilitude–she has a deal less to work with than Keaton or Ruffalo–but I’m glad she’s getting more opportunities to display her genuine dramatic gifts.
Leading the secondary cast is Schreiber, who may have impressed me less on second viewing, but who gives an effective portrayal of a man unimpressed by anything except the truth; an outsider with no time for Boston’s self-mythology. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do quite enough with him, and Schreiber, at least in the cinema, remains imperfectly appreciated.
As the brashly righteous Garabedian, Tucci gives one of his most restrained performances; he makes Garabedian a “character” without ever making him cute. Slattery brings some nice, dry consternation to Bradlee Jr. Crudup is properly smarmy (as is Guilfoyle in his way). d’Arcy James is sort of the afterthought of the team, but he does well enough.
Giving Keaton a run for his money despite a minimum of screentime is Huff, whose mannerisms are just this side of over-the-top, but in fact are a haunting portrait of a deeply wounded man, seemingly held together only by his desire for justice. You believe in his portrayal utterly, and where he given a little more time, I think he would be touted as an awards contender. As it is, it’s a superior small role which makes the ensemble stronger.
Again, the ensemble as a whole is stronger than any of the individual performances, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the ensemble which makes the writing and direction look good, rather than the other way around.
Whatever awards Spotlight wins on Oscar night, I contend that history will not be especially kind or cruel to it; it will stand as a portrait of an important moment in history, and have its place in the pantheon of journalistic dramas, as well as films which deal with public moral crises. But will it be remembered for its scenes, its lines, its performances? I’m not so sure it will.
I think the litmus test for historical films should be whether or not they could be considered an improvement on a well-done documentary on the same subject. And I’m not entirely sure Spotlight is.