2015 was a great cinematic year for what some have labelled “efficiency porn”. A big part of the enjoyment for Best Picture nominees The Martian and Bridge of Spies was watching professionals simply do whatever it takes to get the job done. One more to add to that list is Spotlight, a retelling of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of child molestation accusations in the Catholic Church. Though their search also uncovers many people who were not performing their roles properly, who either let vital information sit their unfollowed due to being held back by the power the church has on the city of Boston.
Indeed, with the subject matter at hand one could imagine a more polemical, angrier and melodramatic version of Spotlight. Thankfully the version that writer and director Tom McCarthy has brought us is more subdued, mature, as committed to exploring every aspect of the case as the leads are. Many of us know that the 87 priest names they are uncovering becomes in the tens of thousands on a global scale, but like All the Presidents Men the commitment to showing only the investigation presents a microscopic lens to the environment that allowed such corruption to happen. From cutting between two testimonies from very different victims of the church, to showing the reporting team living with Catholic parents, to the low angle shots of churches always in the background, the subdued nature of the presentation becomes its own kind of silent anger.
The direction for the most part is a non-showy affair. On one level, this presents the action as candidly as the script, matching the scenario with sheer proficiency. But sometimes, when two interviews with the same person are shot in almost the exact same way, or when the moving becomes standard enough that you can actually predict the blocking of scenes, it’s hard not to think of things as repetitive. But keeping to this level makes more overt moments of stylisation stand, like the aforementioned church shots and crosscutting, or following Matt Carrol (Brian d’Arcy James) in a long take as he finds out just how close this case is to his front door. One POV shot of the trolley in the mailroom even seems to reveal its Zodiac influences, though maybe I only notice that because Mark Ruffalo is also in this.
Speaking of which, the cast is almost the definition of an ensemble. With maybe one exception the roles lack grandstanding, allowing the actors to blend into their roles, and one rarely overshadowing another. Michael Keaton as Walter Robinson continue his string of amazing performances, the camera allowing you to see every aspect of his facial expressions, and scenes between him and John Slattery have both actors show their friendship and professionalism come to ahead. Rachael Adams as Sacha Pfeiffer feels always warm and attentive, and Stanley Tucci is given a brief but vital role as the attorney that attempts to make important documents publicly available to the team.
Only two performances really stand out on this ensemble as weaker than the rest, and for varying reasons. I couldn’t help but be distracted Liev Schreiber as the new editor Mart Baron; it looked like in the process of emoting less he forgot to have a presence in the room. By contrast, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes gets the only scene of shouting in the film, and while he is for the most part great, there is some affectations and ticks to his acting style that just aren’t there in the rest of the cast. Also knowing his character was meant to be a Mexican was a little distracting when the only thing showing it was a bit of spray paint.
But these slight cracks do not break up the strength of the team. Spotlight might not reach the masterpiece heights like All the Presidents Men or Zodiac, but the modest and subdued style also plays up many of the movie’s secret strengths. And between likely Best Picture winner Spotlight, and like Razzie winner The Cobbler, Tom McCarthy sure has had a hell of a strange year.