Light on directorial flourishes and sweeping emotional moments, heavy on process, Spotlight tells the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic church’s cover up of its priests’ systematic sexual abuse of children. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy understands the emotional power in that sentence, and to this story, choosing to tell it in an unassuming, practical manner. The whole film, then, is a very good example of, “less is more.”
Take the cast – Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo all turn in strong, down to earth performances, grounding us in the story. Spotlight isn’t all that interesting as a piece of pure cinema, (the editing here, in particular, is quite rough), and subsequently lives and dies by these performances – there is an innate power, righteous anger, and thirst for justice in this story (one of the film’s few moments of visual bravura is an over-the-shoulder tracking shot following one character as he walks from his house to a priest “safehouse,” brilliantly setting up just how close to home this story is) but the film becomes 2 hours of yawn-inducing interview sessions and research montages if the actors aren’t propelling it along. Thankfully, they do. As good as the three leads (above) are, my two favorite performances came from supporting players Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci. They are a remarkable example of “invisible acting” (Schreiber, as the new editor of the Globe, in particular is so understated it’s as if he isn’t even performing, and Tucci brings his scene-chewing down several levels until he’s just a “strong character presence”). Spotlight is, above all, an actor’s showcase, and scene to scene this cast keeps its process driven plot engaging.
Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. Its focus on process calls attention to the days where research had to be, as one character puts it, “buttoned up.” It is, in part, a celebration of this sort of journalism, and in part a grumpy-old-man retort to internet culture where any one can publish any thing at any time. That said, it did make me yearn for something more. McCarthy lacks the powerful control of mood that David Fincher displayed in Zodiac, a somewhat similar, yet far more effective, investigative picture. Ultimately, though, Spotlight succeeds as a process-oriented investigative drama, and McCarthy is to be praised both for wringing suspense out of mundane moments, and for crafting an impeccably acted movie.