In the early days of the synchronized sound motion picture, Hollywood had to seek out people to write dialogue. It was no longer a matter of the occasional title card, so the writing had to be stronger than it had been before. Lacking a substantial pool of established writers in the forms that the new motion picture would require, the industry turned to established writers in other media. As a result, Hollywood was flooded with east coast newspapermen like James Agee and Herman Mankiewicz.
So it should come as no surprise that newspapers became a big part of Hollywood. The mystery-thrillers that would eventually become detective stories were more often originally stories of heroic journalists fighting for the public’s right to know. The embrionic paranoid thrillers that became bleak pictures of the corrupt corporate-political structure of modern America in the ’70s were often tales of idealistic young journalists fightinga against editors who had been corrupted by the political and commercial leaders of the time. Even after screenwriters were well-established, similar types of journalism thrillers remained commonplace enough that we saw it peak in All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976).
In recent decades, the journalism thriller has fallen off. Without the industry full of newspapermen to force it, public distrust of the media and the rise of other genres in place of what had once been journalism tales conspired to kill off the genre.
And yet, here in 2015, we have an old-school journalism thriller. Spotlight tells the tale of the investigation by reporters that led to the first publication of stories revealing the Cathlic church child abuse scandals of the last 15 years. It isn’t about the church. It isn’t about the hypocrisy of the priests. It’s about the heroism of the journalists in exposing a level of corruption that had even kept their own industry silent for decades.
There is a fundamental problem with this film, and it’s a problem that can easily befall any film based on real-life events of this magnitude: it’s more interested in explaining the events to us than in making any point about it or using it to make a larger point. All the President’s Men is not really about Watergate–it’s about the media’s responsibility as a governmental watchdog. Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney, USA/France/UK/Japan 2005) is about the same thing. While Spotlight makes a similar point numerous times, with the Boston Globe editor telling Cardinal Law that “newspapers do their best when they stand on their own” and Walter Robinson admitting that he should already have done something years before, but it doesn’t stick with making those points. It is instead structured as a slowly-unraveling mystery, revealing layer after layer of corruption and evil within the church and the city surrounding it.
But that lack of focus os really the only thing holding back this film from being great–it does everything it wants to do so well that it’s mostly forgivable but a film with that kind of a lack of focus just has a ceiling, and this one very nearly reaches that ceiling.
Masanobo Takayanagi and Tom McCarthy borrow a few ideas from All the President’s Men: the harsh, high-key lighting and generally naturalistic feel are reminiscent of what Alan J. Pakula and the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis, did in that film. However, Willis’s trademark darkness and shadows as well as Pakula’s love of the oversized, empty-feeling rooms and buildings, which combined to give a sense of danger, foreboding, and incredible odds against someone too powerful to be fought, are gone, replaced by a more standard color palette and settings too naturalistic to make any of the points stronger visually. The film doesn’t have that incredible visual punch that Pakula’s film had, but it’s reasonable enough, and there’s nothing embarrassing about not being as good as Gordon Willis.
The acting throughout the film is excellent, though few of the actors are given much to do. Michael Keaton has long been one of the more underappreciated actors in Hollywood, and he does nothing to change that vision here. He’s a hard-nosed reporter, but one who finds himself surprisingly at the middle of this entire controversy, having been a part of the problem and now attempting to become a part of the solution. His self-realizations, his guilt, and even his strength are played with a subtlety that makes him easily relatable and allows all of those feelings to play at various levels depending on the situation at the time. In spite of his background in comedy, Keaton has established himself as a fantastic subtle actor, even back to the days of Batman (Tim Burton, USA 1989), and this film ranks among his best work. Nobody else really has much to do, but everyone from Mark Ruffalo to Stanley Tucci is excellent. Even the typically wooden Liev Schreiber is excellent, showing a quiet mix of thoughfulness and awkwardness underneath a mass of facial hair.
Howard Shore is a very hit-or-miss composer, his scores veering between excellence and a reliance on convention that renders them all but useless. But this film is undoubtedly a hit. The emotions of the scene are always heightened and the score is never drawing too much of the attention.
Overall, Spotlight is a good film. Its problems are major problems that prevent it from being any kind of masterpiece, but it does everything else so well that it’s acceptable. It’s a film worth seeing.
- One thing this film did an excellent job of showing was the enormity of the scandal–I frankly had never internalized just how big it was before, but I feel like watching this film allowed me to do so.
- I don’t know how accurate the details are, but the idea that one of the reporters turned out to be living a block away from a “rehabilitation center” is an astonishing coincidence. So much so that I really found it difficult to accept it.
- I don’t think I had ever seen Michael Keaton in a film in a theater–he had gone so long without being in anything I had any interest in seeing that I knew him from things that came out either before I was born or very early in my life. And now I’ve been to see two films in which he starred in the last year.