Faultless across the board, ‘Spotlight’ stakes its claim for film of the year, says Peter Dunne.
Talk about a turnaround. Tom McCarthy, writer/director of well received, gentle, character-driven films The Visitor and The Station Agent finally came a cropper in 2014 when he tangled with the crown prince of toilet humour, Adam Sandler, in The Cobbler. A fairytale flop so darkly conceived it verged on offensive, The Cobbler suggested McCarthy would struggle in the mainstream. It’s startling to think he followed up that moronic, developmentally arrested Sandler flick with Spotlight, a ruthlessly focused powerhouse of a drama now nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay.
It’s Boston, 2001, and tackling a downturn in circulation, The Globe newspaper takes on Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) as its new editor-in-chief. Fresh in the door, Marty hears of an attorney, Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), dealing with numerous families who claim their children were abused by Catholic priests. Realising how far reaching the cases could be, Marty assigns the story to The Globe’s special investigative team – Spotlight.
Led by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) dig into decades of suppressed evidence and court cases almost miraculously buried by the Church’s lawyers, interviewing victims previously fobbed off with veiled threats and lack of support. Fired by righteous indignation, the Spotlight crew attempt to bring to light a scandal so horrifying it could shake the Catholic Church to its core.
Considering McCarthy seemed content to amble quietly alongside his characters in previous films, nothing could have hinted at the level of focus, dexterity and bravura film-making on display here. Tact was needed in dealing with trickier, darker, subject matter than his usual gentle fare, but so was indignation, and that’s abundantly apparent here. There is a level of controlled anger bubbling under, which never reaches a hysterical outburst, but is all the more piercing because of it. Co-scripted with Josh Singer, who cut his teeth in TV drama The West Wing, this thing takes off like a rocket, trusting the audience to keep pace. The whip-crack speed of the monstrously intelligent script, made up almost completely of dialogue, is almost alien compared with the spoon-feeding of facts or drawn-out silences amid the other Best Picture nominees.
Despite the quality what was going on behind the camera, it was still very much dependent on the actors to cement Spotlight in a position of greatness. And that they do. It’s stuffed to the gills with a dearth of fine character actors; John Slattery and Billy Crudup deserve a mention as do the host of other familiar faces all bringing their A-game. Keaton, McAdams and Schrieber are particularly strong, their centred performances are impassioned but there’s not one overwrought ‘Oscar moment’, which is ironic, given that McAdams is indeed deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor mix is Ruffalo, who does get a few teary-eyed speeches but manages to keep them in check. If there was a Best Ensemble Oscar, this lot would clean up.
It’s hard to describe something with a subject matter so appalling as entertaining; nevertheless, it’s unmissable. Showing what film is capable of when the rush for box office success is secondary, a perfect storm of talents combine in a worthy successor to such journalistic classics as All The Presidents Men. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
‘Spotlight’ is released on January 29, 2016
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