The Films of 2015: Spotlight

These days, movies about journalists have come to feel almost as quaint as newspapers themselves.  So even though Spotlight takes place only fourteen years ago, when a team of crackerjack reporters at The Boston Globe first exposed the Catholic Church’s decades-long legacy of child abuse, it plays upon our nostalgia for the good old days before journalistic integrity came to be threatened by the blogosphere and the cable-TV circuit.  As some awards pundits have already argued, Spotlight stands poised to win the Oscar this year because it extols the lost virtues of print culture and ethics-driven reporting, of chasing down leads and spending months to research a story.  The Globe’s investigative team, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), are intrepid, hard-working, savvy, driven; they’re easy to like as well as to admire.  We’re invited to cheer them on as they build their story brick by brick.  In spite of the specter of sex abuse that looms over the film, Spotlight is essentially a feel-good movie.  It insists that good journalism can correct injustice and bring evil to light—a corrective to so many movies and TV shows in which “the media” is itself evil.   

Spotlight is, much like the Globe’s story, dutifully put together, and the three lead performances are intelligent and understated.  As in this season of HBO’s True Detective, McAdams proves that she’s able to contribute good work even when there isn’t much for her to do.  But (as they say) is it art?  I’m not sure that there’s anything about Spotlight that couldn’t be gotten by reading, well, a long-form newspaper article about its subject.  By shifting the focus away from the abusers and their victims—who, when on-screen, are vastly more interesting than any of the reporters—the screenwriters have inadvertently drained the film of much of its conflict.  Robinson, Pfeiffer, and Rezendes do not make for particularly interesting characters, nor is it interesting to watch them dig up files or tap out copy.  The film’s attempts to generate urgency and tensionvia impending deadlines, a race to beat the Boston Herald to the story, and some regret on the part of the journalists for not having exposed the scandal soonercome to seem desperate.  At the level of the screenplay and the direction, Spotlight remains perfunctory and by-the-numbers.  Tom McCarthy, whose previous films include the cloying indie dramedy Win Win, once again appears to hide behind material that looks riskier and more ambitious than it is.  The film is the cinematic equivalent of a college term paper written by a slick but not especially creative student: well packaged though it may be, there’s hardly a single original idea to be found in the thing.  

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