Spotlight is a true story about a small team of journalists working for the Spotlight column in the Boston Globe newspaper who exposed the cover-up of widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This is a film which was highly praised when it was released and it also won a few awards, but it seems to me that the critics and voters were giving this film a high rating simply because of the subject matter, if this was any other movie I don’t think it would have received so many accolades. Let me just say that Spotlight isn’t a bad film, it’s well written and well acted, but rather than being a landmark expose like the article it’s based upon, it instead comes across as a Sunday-evening television drama.
The film is laid out chronologically and focusses on the journalists and their investigation, the viewer is taken on a sleuthing journey with all the members of the Spotlight team. This sifting through evidence is the kind of thing that should be tense and thrilling but it unfortunately comes off as quite sedate and undemanding, and for a story that centres around a child-molestation scandal this is completely the wrong style. Yes the subject matter should have been handled in a sombre way, but the uncovering of clues should also be nail-biting. Spotlight takes a potentially shocking plot and makes it seem uneventful, this is a film which could and should have been riveting but it falls short of being an all-out thriller, this really isn’t the gripping, detective-work-filled movie it was described as when it was first released.
It seems to me that the film-makers have assumed that their movie will automatically leave film-goers impressed and distraught, simply because of the important and distressing subject matter, but unfortunately in the case of Spotlight you don’t feel too much emotion because the film itself doesn’t present us with any. Scenes like the journalist Michael Rezendes discovering that some of the evidence has been filed in another case (and therefore isn’t sealed and is open to the public) should have been filled with anticipation and even excitement, but alas it was just another scene. And this brings me to the direction. Tom McCarthy, the director seems to have gone for a point and shoot aesthetic; there’s no complicated shots, there’s no tinkering with linear time, and that’s fine, but there’s no mood or atmosphere either, in fact there’s not much of anything. For me the direction is almost non-existent, it’s like McCarthy isn’t even there. This could have been a thrill ride, it could have been another “All The President’s Men” or “Zodiac” but instead it’s like watching an Odyssey true story, like something aired on the True Movies channel.
The score is also pretty weak, in fact the monotony of the piano track gets old very quickly, the entire soundtrack sounds like an easy-listening, wannabe George Winston melody playing continuously in the background regardless of what’s taking place on screen. Because of this, pivotal scenes are turned into plodding ones, and this dull piano sound is again something which feels more at home in a TV movie rather than in a cinematic feature. Certain scenes such as the journalist Sacha Pfeiffer getting a surprise doorstep confession from an ex-priest, if it had been accompanied by better, more weightier music could have been shocking, but instead this again is just another scene. Thanks to the stagnant score, nothing stands out and no particular part of the movie is raised to heart-pounding from the steady pulse the film-makers seem to prefer. I can’t believe that the great Howard Shore (Scanners, Silence Of The Lambs, Se7en, The Cell) was responsible for this repetitious and disappointing musical accompaniment.
Thankfully, the actors in Spotlight are better than the direction and the music, Mark Ruffalo in particular gives a great performance but then again he always does, and unless he’s playing Hulk he is one of the most reliable, likeable, and watchable actors out there. Other actors too such as Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber give decent performances but for me the best acting comes from the peripheral characters such as the victims, especially Jimmy LeBlanc. But despite these fantastic supporting performances, similar to Devil’s Knot, all the hard work by the cast can’t make a film which is essentially average into something better.
Taking into account the skilful acting, I assume the director and producers thought that the acting and the plot alone would be enough to carry the film, but regardless of the fine work from the cast and the saddening storyline, in the case of Spotlight this isn’t enough, and although they’re great, the actors can only do so much. With the understated direction coupled with the same-same score, it makes a potentially brilliant film feel quite basic. I recall critics and reviewers calling Spotlight a “grown-up film” which sometimes can be a synonym for “boring” or “dull”. In the case of Spotlight, calling it a “grown-up film” simply refers to the subject matter because you can’t say too much about the lacklustre direction, the slow pace, or the bland and stagnant tone. Yes this film is worth watching, yes it’s somewhat engaging, but overall it’s an average movie, it’s far from being a total disappointment but it could have been so much better.
Not Quite In The Spotlight.
You might say that the movie lacked any excitement, but I prefer that way. Biopics should be as real as they can get. I have seen too many biopics which exaggerated the events so much that they cheapened them or gave revisionist history (Straight Outta Compton is an example). Spotlight, however, is different. It doesn’t come across as contrived or heavy handed. The scenes are never overdramatised. It goes straight to the point. I also feel this movie is a love letter to investigative journalism given the story it is based on. In today’s age, you see so many shitty news sites like the Daily Mail or Buzzfeed, so Spotlight implicitly reinforced the view that better journalism is needed. While the score is decent, the subject matter alone is enough to make the film gripping. In my opinion, Spotlight is a great movie and showed how a biopic should be done.
It’s impossible for a piece of entertainment, especially Hollyood movies to be 100% real so there’s no point in making a film look mediocre for the sake of so-called realism. By that logic all biopics and true stories would be dull and that isn’t the case.
On the topic of realism, Spotlight included fictionalised dialogue for the scene with Jack Dunn (the former student of Boston College High School) in which the filmmakers made it look like he didn’t care about the sexual abuse. The real-life Jack Dunn took objection to being portrayed in this way and he threatened legal action. The filmmakers then admitted to creating “fictionalised dialogue that was attributed to Mr. Dunn for dramatic effect”, so obviously the writer/director bent the truth for entertainment’s sake. Why then couldn’t the tone also be changed to be more thrilling? Making it a little more suspenseful wouldn’t have changed the plot, in fact if the director cared so much about realism and the real events, maybe he should have made certain scenes more distressing or exciting to accurately portray the feeling of actually uncovering such a big news story?
I have to reiterate that I didn’t hate this movie, it was generally a good watch, but films like the aforementioned All The President’s Men or Zodiac made investigation much more suspenseful without altering the story.
Spotlight had more of a TV feeling like Deliberate Stranger, Everybody’s Baby, or I Know My First Name Is Steven, which are decent movies but the tone of these films feel less important, like something you’d wait for the ad break to go get a snack or a drink. A film like Zodiac has you so invested in the characters and the plot that you don’t want to leave the film, that’s the difference between adding a mediocre score/direction and adding a weightier look and feel, in both cases the plot could remain exactly the same.
I’m not saying Spotlight should have been stylised like The Doors, Bronson, or Ed Wood, obviously with this subject matter you wouldn’t want to exaggerate anything, but adding a little feeling of importance wouldn’t have gone amiss.
It’s quite strange because the screenplay and plot has absolutely nothing wrong with it but the tone is wrong in my opinion, it’s like the opposite of Foxcatcher which had the right mood and look but the plot was not only excruciatingly slow but it was missing the most crucial parts of real event (the stand-off). If spotlight had the aesthetics of something like Foxcatcher or Zodiac I would have given it a higher rating, because like I said the film was well written and well acted, but the drab piano and the TV-style direction let it down big time.
Besides, Zodiac, there’s also another similar crime thriller that is loosely based on a true story and of a similar premise, called Memories of Murder, by Bong Joon-ho, a South Korean film released in 2003. Have you seen it?
No I haven’t seen it but I’ll look out for it if people are comparing it to Zodiac (incidentally one of my favourite movies of the noughties). I’ve watched The Host by Joon-ho Bong but wasn’t aware of this particular film. Thanks for the recommendation.
South Korean thrillers & crime dramas are the best things to watch most recently compared to Hollywood’s
The Koreans, since 2003 onward, had been very inventive of this particular genre
@Langdon Yes I couldn’t agree with you more. Their films so far, the good ones at least, are very unpredictable & much more engaging to watch…
Films like Mother (another Bong Joon-ho film revolving around a murder), The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, Montage, I Saw The Devil, The Unjust and numerous others from the Koreans that I could recommend to anyone who wants to watch very good crime thrillers
And then there’s also this 2011 Australian crime drama film based on a true event called Snowtown