As the televisually cinematic and the cinematically televisual continue to converge, a film like Spotlight seems significant. Tom McCarthy’s true-life tale of how the Boston Globe’s special investigative ‘Spotlight’ team unearthed a vast cover-up over child abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese has been garlanded with awards nominations and critical hosannas; but what is so remarkable about Spotlight is just how uncinematic it is, and how little this seems to matter. One could even call Spotlight televisual. To label a film televisual used to signify its status as a lesser form of expression, but the Second Golden Age of Television has served to complicate this distinction. Television was once the realm of the overlit and underdeveloped, but respected auteurs like Steven Soderbergh have migrated to television, frustrated by the vagaries of film finance in an increasingly risk-averse milieu.
The tone of Spotlight is best described as forensic; it strives to mimic the procedural exactitude of Alan J. Pakula, but in seeking to refrain from dramatic chest beating, it often feels remote. McCarthy has made his name behind the camera directing quirky indies about unlikely friendships like the excellent The Station Agent (2003) and the so-so Win Win (2011); he has developed a light directorial touch – what Steven Speilberg calls a ‘quiet lens’ – effacing his own stylistic impulses in service of the story and performances. In a year which has featured some truly extraordinary visual stylists at the peak of their powers – Emmanuel Lubezki in The Revenant, Roger Deakins in Sicario, Robert Richardson in The Hateful Eight, Edward Lachman in Carol – Spotlight wears its visual plainness as a badge of authenticity; Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is chilly and somewhat drab, underlining the fact that the emphasis here is on character interplay. Like the equally Oscar-feted Steve Jobs, this is a textbook People Talking in Rooms film, peppered with Sorkin-esque walk-and-talks; co-writer Josh Singer’s time as a staff writer on The West Wing is firmly in evidence.
Where Spotlight really distinguishes itself is the quality of its performances; like the investigative team it portrays, this is an ensemble effort. Michael Keaton is the Jason Robards of the piece, bringing an easy charm to the role of the wily veteran who guides his industrious young team. There is some debate as to whether Rachel McAdams earned her Oscar nomination, but her portrayal of Sacha Pfeiffer is a great example of being rather than playing, her familial subplot helping to elucidate the competing codes in her life. Mark Ruffalo is the film’s heart as Michael Rezendes, the terrier who relentlessly pursues the story in the face of a rigidly enforced ‘omerta’, bringing to mind Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith in Zodiac (2007). Liev Schreiber gives a taut performance as the Globe’s incoming editor, a cultural outsider and quiet radical; John Slattery is the brusque authority figure he played with such élan in Mad Men; and Brian d’Arcy James brings a laconic edge to reporter Matt Caroll. Beyond the Spotlight team, Billy Crudup is a particular highlight as a slippery attorney and Stanley Tucci is at his abrasive best as a tenacious lawyer.
Ultimately, one can’t help but feel that Spotlight would be better served on television – and by television I mean any of the various platforms on which episodic, non-theatrically exhibited content is shown. This is a story which begs to be told over ten-plus hours on HBO, Netflix et al., with the result that Spotlight feels filleted from the story told to such heart-rending effect in Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012). The only thing to distinguish Spotlight from HBO’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) and Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) is the fact that Spotlight received a theatrical release. Spotlight is a solid, understated piece which details the journalistic process and laments the dying paradigm of responsible, methodical journalism. But it never quite manages to find a dramatic engine with which to propel this significant story beyond unadorned reportage.
Spotlight is showing at The Showroom Cinema until the 11th February.