[Mild spoilers follow, but this film is based on a true story]
As one of this year’s strongest award contenders, with its true story basis, an ensemble full of heavyweights like Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, and large themes of global relevance in its retelling of the journalistic investigation into the cover up of abuse within the Catholic Church, Spotlight announces itself as a prestige drama and asks you to consider it the first great film of 2016. And for a while it is a very good film, until suddenly it isn’t.
Tom McCarthy directs, and this is probably the most enjoyable and energetic film of his career, which is made up of small character pieces like The Station Agent and last year’s abominable The Cobbler. The latter film is the kind that can kill the career of a director like McCarthy dead, so it is good to see that in Spotlight he is able to shake off any memories of that Adam Sandler vehicle. This is a well paced, well acted film that makes its message clear and will play well to audiences. However McCarthy’s film actually feels rather empty.
Visually Spotlight is televisual, its neutral colour and lighting palette doing nothing for our senses. Scenes play out in a very standard series of master shot to medium shot of one character, to another character’s similarly framed head and shoulders, repeated ad nauseum. This is an inherently uncinematic way to create scenes. One could argue that the film purposefully attempts an unfurnished look so as not to distract the audience from the import of the story at hand, but simplicity does not necessarily mean drabness. Look at All The President’s Men, which had similar newsroom and office based locations, and how Gordon Willis’ cinematography allowed for long takes of characters together in shots, acting off of each other, where blocking and camera movement within the shot creates meaning. It is classical cinematography, but these moments are rare in Spotlight.
The best bit of visual storytelling in the film coming when the team receives a tip over the telephone, the shot beginning with the camera on the phone as it is answered. As the scene continues we slowly pull back revealing more members of the team as each one gets involved in the conversation. This is when they have the revelation that around 90 Boston priests are guilty of abuse. By this point, the camera is far away from them, the team looking tiny, huddled around the phone in stunned silence as they consider how much larger this scandal is than they thought. This clarity, tying visual symbolism with the meaning of the scene, all while allowing the actors to perform in the moment with each other, is precisely what this ensemble needed to really tick, and what the film begs for in order to warrant the big screen.
Another major issue comes in the third act, which shoehorns in conflict between the team in an effort to spell out the themes to the audience and give the actors their most showy moments. Ruffalo gets a speech which surely earned him that Oscar nomination, and the personal stakes are conveniently raised to coincide with the printing of the story. Structurally, this is the natural thing to do, but in a film that had so effectively been about people who are good at their job, doing their jobs well, this turn into histrionics is atonal and undoes the subtlety of the preceding hour or so. It is almost as though McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer don’t trust their own storytelling abilities or that of the audience to infer meaning, and so insist upon telling us how to feel, either though trailer-ready dialogue or obvious music cues.
One of the most mawkishly ham-fisted moments comes after the story has been published, as Rachel McAdams watches her devout Catholic grandmother read her work, studying for her reaction. The grandmother asks for a glass of water, strings swell, the camera lingers on her sad looking face. McAdams can rest happy that her grandmother is ultimately proud of her for poking the holes in the system, and that even though it wasn’t easy, Grandma had to know. Giving McAdams this catharsis is McCarthy taking the easy way out, overlooking the real conflict of family and faith, and in doing so lets us off the hook. The same can be said for Keaton’s resolution, in which he realises that he actually had most of the evidence years earlier. He admits that he in part is complicit in the abuse, and his miffed looking colleagues forgive him. This confession, in a film based around Catholic characters, effectively absolves Keaton of his responsibility. Catharsis such as this allows the audience to feel acquitted of their own complicity. To feel involved and as if they are fighting the good fight just by showing up to see the film.
This imbalance is even more painful when one considers how little time the film actually spends with the victims themselves. Keeping many of the scenes to lawyers, board leaders and other people in power is thematically appropriate considering the overall scope of the investigation, but seems to overlook the personal plight itself. Spotlight never really zeroes in in its representation of the victims, reducing their stories to a few short scenes. It is worth mentioning that going too far the other way, with scene after scene of victims recounting their experiences in detail could come off as misery porn, but the representation of the characters as it stands is cartoonish and shields the audience from the true extent of the pain. .
One victim character for example is painted is an overly camp gay stereotype inserted as almost a comic relief. He describes acts forced upon him by a priest but with a flamboyance that had audiences my screening actually laughing. Similarly, McAdams confronts a priest who nonchalantly admits to abusing children. It is a surprising enough moment to warrant shocked laughter, as is his smiling expression, but when he mentions that he was raped himself as a child, another character comes and takes him away. The systemic nature of the problem is hinted at but not fully explored. At every turn Spotlight softens the blow, allows the audience to look away.
Spotlight tackles one of the most horrifying scandals of our age, but its insistence on holding the audience’s hand through the process cheapens the impact, makes it more ‘Movie’. The most effective part of the film is the ending, in which a list of places where Church Abuse has been uncovered fills the screen over five or six title cards. There is no music, just white letters over a black screen. Suddenly the scale of the thing is made clear, just as the reduction of the human experience to place names makes one understand how words can sweep something so grand under the rug. This moment has such impact that it has you leaving the cinema almost believing the whole film was this powerful.