Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams head an all-star cast in Tom McCarthy’s fact-based drama. The plot follows a group of tenacious reporters, for the Boston Globe newspaper, as they investigate the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the area. What starts as a simple (albeit horrific) story about the occasional minister, soon becomes a much bigger and more unsettling tale, leaving all concerned to question the nature of the church, the press and the parishioners, as well as their own potential involvement in the collective (and selective), ignorance of a more widespread injustice than they could possibly have imagined.
Some have compared Spotlight to the seminal 1970s political thriller All the President’s Men – and there are indeed a number of comparisons to be drawn. Both films are dramas based on real events concerning long-form investigative journalism and the uncovering of controversial material. Both films focus on themes of justice, paranoia, and the role of institutions. The tone and structure of both is also similar in that they are told solely from the point of view of the journalists, and feature extended, dialogue-heavy scenes and maintain a tense atmosphere through an understated linear narrative. Furthermore, the two reports the films are based on, are actually are linked by blood – Globe journalist Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), is the son of none other than Ben Bradlee Snr., who was instrumental to the famous investigation of the Watergate scandal that inspired Alan J. Pakula’s picture.
Whilst Spotlight is not quite in the same league as the 70s classic, it is certainly a solid film, refreshingly subtle in its approach. It is the kind of old-fashioned filmmaking that is such a joy to see in contemporary cinema, akin to Bennett Miller’s Capote and Ben Affleck’s Argo. It is very deserving of this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture and, fortunately, is very likely to win.
The cast of actors Tom McCarthy has assembled is as impressive as their performances. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and Slattery are joined by Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Liev Schreiber, Brian D’Arcy James, and an uncredited voice-over cameo from Richard Jenkins. Together, they are surely enough to sell any movie. I attended a Q&A with a few members of the cast and discovered copious amounts of behind-the-scenes information, which you can check out here.
“A solid film, refreshingly subtle in its approach”
Needless to say, all are on top form, with McAdams’s absorbing performance a particular stand-out. Much has been said about Ruffalo – and he is certainly good – but one wonders whether the Best Supporting Actor nomination should have gone to one of the other fine performers instead (perhaps Keaton or Tucci – both of whom are terrific). Indeed, Ruffalo’s is the only performance that takes some time to warm to. It is a more mannered affair that suggests the actor might have been trying to impersonate his distinctive real-life counterpart a little too accurately. D’Arcy James has received no attention at all for his performance but is actually one of the highlights of the film, offering a rounded and endearing everyman character whose faith is quietly disturbed by the discoveries he makes. Having said that, it is very difficult to single out one particular actor when the company is so strong as a whole and the film is so invested in all of its characters, creating a charmingly egalitarian feel to the picture, free of egos or the excesses of a star vehicle.
McCarthy has done an excellent job with his actors, and his story manages to give a slow-burning movie a sense of urgency and pace that grips the audience like a vice from the start. Though subtle, his presence is felt throughout the film in every detail, his meticulous attention allowing us to enjoy the beauty of the dance without seeing the choreography behind it. Together with editor Tom McArdle, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and co-writer Josh Singer, he has built a clearly defined world told in an intelligent and refined manner that will keep the audience’s brains active and skin prickling.
Strong writing, easily defined characters, unfussy but effective cinematography, invisible direction and editing, with an excellent ensemble cast make for a great cinematic experience.
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