|'This is McCarthy's genius: whilst we all think that we want to see epic conclusions and conflict in clearly drawn battles between good and evil, really we do not. We just want to see good storytelling.'|
It's a brave film that references, draws from and learns with All The President's Men. Alan J. Pakula's film is not only a tentpole of the Newsroom sub-genre, but arguably the tentpole. That Spotlight can not only look to it, but stand alongside it is nothing short of amazing.
The main reason for that is not content or plot or approach, but rather it is the fact that this feels like an old film. At least two people I've talked to, who heard of the film a little out of context, have asked whether it is really new. It does not look it. Director Tom McCarthy (who's still batting a perfect average in my eyes: I have not seen The Cobbler) and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi produce a film that not only visually feels like its early 2000s setting, but reflects the fact that its values are much older through the way it tells its story. There are few crescendos or peaks. I can recall only one argument between main players and only a smattering of confrontations between the entire cast. This is McCarthy's genius: whilst we all think that we want to see epic conclusions and conflict in clearly drawn battles between good and evil, really we do not. We just want to see good storytelling. For a single shot which encompasses all of this, watch for the moment we follow a trolley of files early in the film. It is a shot which could have come straight from All The President's Men, almost traditional in its inclusion, patient in its storytelling as it trundles down a corridor away from us. It signifies that we are back, back in the land of a good story, well told.
The storytelling here involves the near superhero alike Spotlight team (that their leader, Michael Keaton constantly presents them as some sort of crack squad, whilst growling in his office, pager attached to his hip like a holster, is not accidental) who begin the film with a new Editor (Liev Schreiber) in need of a good story. They settle on the tale of abuse by Catholic priests within the Boston area and begin an investigation that slowly begins to erode cracks between community and religion, news and newspapers, individual and collective tragedies.
In what is a comparatively simple story it is, as ever, the little things which make it a great one. McCarthy's palette of characters and areas of intrigue is as colourful and as well drawn as films more colourful in appearance than this one. Look, there's Stanley Tucci on the verge of another extrovert performance as lawyer Mitch Garabedian but actually reigning himself in whenever he is on screen (note the only time we see him shout, as he throws someone out of his office, he is off screen). Look, there's Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James in supporting roles which hardly ever feel marginalised. Look, there's Mark Ruffalo, channelling Brando more than ever, complete with leather jacket and plotting which deliberately hints at various personal elements, but is never crass enough to go there.
The beauty though of Spotlight's humanity is that it is not only the stars who are drawn like this. Patrick (Jimmy LeBlanc) is the most human abuse survivor that Hollywood has ever managed to present to us, a tough-sounding Bostonite from 'Southie' who is as tragically preyed upon as the other victims we see. Each is individual and well drawn, each gets screentime that, whilst brief for the sake of the plot's pace, never feels as though it is a kiss-off. Everyone in Spotlight feels, sometimes to our horror, human. Watch for the reaction of the priest doorstepped by Sacha (McAdams). In another film there would be histrionics. Spotlight calmly shows the calculating actions of abusers, their mindsets, and the people left behind, but it never feels preachy in doing do, nor does it need to step outside its wrapper: this is always a thrilling Drama, moral though it may be.
Back to that All The President's Men parallel. Spotlight cannot avoid the fact that the comparison will be made because Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father was played in an Oscar-winning turn by Jason Robards in Pakula's film, is a character here. How does McCarthy deal with it? There are two ways and both are successful in both simultaneously setting Spotlight apart and accepting and encouraging a dialogue with All The President's Men. Firstly, Bradlee Jr. is marginalised. He may be technically in control of the Spotlight team, but incoming editor Marty Baron stirs the pot and guides the investigation, so it is he and not Bradlee Jr. who takes on the mantle of respected superior. Schreiber, as with everyone here, is terrific, but McCarthy's direction is better. Baron could not be less like Bradlee senior if he was literally from another planet. Where Robards as Bradlee senior is remembered for gruff interdictions and dictats ('not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm gonna lose my temper'), Baron's management style barely gets above a whisper and never issues a curse. It's a performance that shouldn't just garner awards but should be studied at management seminars. Meanwhile, without besmirching his good character, McCarthy gives us reason to doubt Bradlee Jr.'s historical reporting. The old guard, the message comes across loud and clear, are here, but the new guard are the ones winning the battle in this story. The message holds for the way the film relates to the journalism-led films of the past.
With all that going on though, it's important to remember that McCarthy has made a compelling two hour Thriller about people writing things down, investigating archives and talking in rooms. The editing on show is superb, whichever way you look at that statement. The director, with Win Win, The Station Agent and The Visitor, is someone who has threatened Hollywood's top echelons from an Indie point of attack for a while now. Like the publication itself, Spotlight is more mainstream and it sees McCarthy reach those heights. I've not seen a better film in the last twelve months.
Spotlight is released in UK cinemas on Friday 29th January 2016.