Spotlight made me nostalgic.
Once upon a time, primarily in the late-70s and early 80s, movies weren’t afraid to confront real topics with intelligent screenplays involving intelligent characters. They considered events involving politics, journalism, law, education, etc., and told stories that respected the intelligence of their viewers. Movies like All the President’s Men, Absence of Malice, And Justice For All and The Verdict, cinemastuff which worked our cranial cavities like professors challenging their students. We felt like adults, not just movie patrons, but folk who felt alive with the simultaneous engagement of being amply entertained and getting the chance to figure out the pieces of a puzzle. A meaningful puzzle.
Then the mid-eighties enforced the blockbuster mentality on all mainstream cinema, and those types of pictures disappeared from view, replaced with utter vapidity during the summers, and more “meaningful” works at the end of the year as Oscar bait. The low-key, incisive, cerebral film was out of fashion – any last traces of it were completely obliterated as the 90s rolled around, and digital technology destroyed the attention span necessary for the maintenance of such a picture.
So when a film comes along like Spotlight, a paper-trail story about investigative newspaper reporters uncovering the Catholic Church molestation scandal of 2001, it reinvigorates my optimism. It has all the watermarks of the films I mentioned earlier, but we’re living in a day and age when clarity and complexity are rarely seen together in a movie, so to achieve both and confront something meaningful and socially relevant is as rare as it is admirable.
Clearly he star of this film is the screenplay, and it deftly manages to lead the viewer throughout a labyrinthine, thinking-man’s whodunit with just the right dramatic rhythms. We all know the standard-issue scenes of this genre: the reporters looking at microfiche in the library, making copies, phone calls, having meetings – you know, all the exciting stuff. But the characterizations are all clear, distinct and richly-drawn, so we follow them easily, regardless of their actions.
And the dialogue is sharply resonant; it doesn’t fall for the usual histrionic clichés. We really feel like these are the conversations that go on at a major newspaper. The new editor-in-chief, played by Liev Schreiber (bearded, and looking like a 70s Richard Masur), doesn’t come in with both barrels. He doesn’t force the “Spotllight” team to do anything; rather, he suggests that to increase readership they ought to cover the stories that matter to the average subscriber. Accordingly, there’s a scene in which one reporter notices an accused priest lives nearby, all-too close to his own, vulnerable family. He goes to Keaton, unsure if he can stand waiting for the paper to strike at just the right moment with the story. Keaton, rather than respond with the standard, “We’ve got a paper to run; that’s the important thing” line we’d expect in a lesser film, instead answers, calmly, "It will happen soon." Again, real.
Some people don’t think the film’s director, Tom McCarthy, deserved his Oscar nomination in that category, but I beg to differ. He had the daunting task of juggling all the performances and scenes (and there are dozens, in this two-hour-plus movie) so they didn’t wind up as a big mess on the screen. And he does not fall prey to the unfortunate trend in wordy movies of late: having the characters talk so fast, and so artificially, that you have no idea what’s going on, and don’t particularly care either (lots of audiences mistake this for “sharp” or “witty”). McCarthy gives his dialogue plenty of breathing room – you can digest their lines, and think about their ideas afterward. Film should be no different from live theater in this regard, yet it so often is.
The film also wisely steers clear of the more graphic elements of its subject matter, realizing it would impart an entirely different tone. Not that it's not an important issue to deal with - it most certainly is - but that's a different movie (that, in fact, would be a documentary called Deliver Us From Evil, a harrowing portrait of a Catholic priest whose crimes were covered up by the church for decades). The few scenes in Spotlight that inform us of the urgency of the newspaper's mission are enough to get the point across.
A few quibbles: with so many similar, pressed-together performances, you can see which ones shine, which are serviceable, and which simply pale in comparison – it is those of the latter category (I won’t name names) which bring the whole thing down just a few pegs. And I also think a few, strategically placed moments where characters emote just a bit, perhaps from all the pressure of their jobs, would’ve served the story well. Toward the end especially we’re somewhat jaded by all the shop-talk, and it limits our investment in their quest, and ultimately whether or not they succeed.
But overall, fine work. And remember, there was a time, boys and girls, when Hollywood specialized in these sorts of films. Go back and rent a few of ‘em; you might be surprised.