Posted on February 8th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »
Spotlight is one of those movies that crept up on me. Before it started making the rounds as Oscar-buzz, I had no idea it even existed. Today, priests molesting kids is often little more than a careless punchline to an “edgy” comedy routine, but in Boston in 2001, it was absolutely unthinkable. Like a modern-day All the President’s Men, the movie focuses not on the vile actions of the priests or the suffering of the victims but on the diligence of the journalists who brought the case to the public’s attention.
Leading the (sometimes absurdly over-praised) “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe is Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, who keeps his wide-eyed mannerisms under control to create a sober portrait of a modest crusader. He is flanked by Rachel McAdams who does much with relatively little to create a softer but no less driven counterpoint to Keaton’s eyes-on-the-prize clarity; and by Mark Ruffalo in an Oscar nominated turn, bizarrely appropriating some of Bruce Willis’s facial tics, who is the true heart and soul of much of the movie’s long middle section. The fourth member of the team, Matt Carroll, is played by Brian d’Arcy James who sadly lacks the star-wattage to compete in this company.
Above Keaton and co sit John Slattery as Managing Editor and Liev Schreiber as Editor in Chief. When the movie opens, the new boss is just taking over and Schreiber has tremendous fun making Marty Barron absolutely impossible to read. His impassive declaration over lunch that he intends to make the Boston Globe “indispensable to its readers” hilariously leaves Keaton none-the-wiser about whether he intends to kill off the Spotlight team or retain them.
In fact, it’s Barron who directs them towards the shady goings-on between the DA, the church and the underage population of Boston. His relentless, although underplayed, zeal to strike at not just the wrong-doing but the systemic cover-up hints that he may know more than he is giving away. Likewise, little moments of tension between Keaton, Slattery and Schreiber keep hinting at a forthcoming crisis, feud, conflict of interest or horrible secret. But in the event none of this materialises and everyone just gets on with the job. Schreiber is still fun, but he turns out to be scarcely relevant to the story. And apart from those viewers with a vested interest in seeing the chain of command accurately depicted, I doubt anyone would notice if Slattery’s character was deleted altogether (which might free him up to play Matt Carroll instead – there’s a thought).
That’s this film all over. There are some great cameos from luminaries such as Len Cariou, Billy Crudup and especially Stanley Tucci as a devious but secretive lawyer working with victims, and there are some very well-judged bits of testimony from some of those victims. But generally it sticks strongly to its sober, methodical, procedural playbook with the result that it only flickers into emotional or comedic life very briefly and occasionally.
This is not necessarily to suggest that a more hysterical, heart-tugging, garment-rending version of the film would have been better. On the contrary, it would almost certainly have been worse. But given that – due to the nature of the subject matter – the story can’t be turned into Erin Brockovich or (God help us) Jerry Maguire, I question the need to make a drama out of it at all. With Making A Murderer the latest binge-watching craze, why would not a documentary have told the story just as clearly and soberly?
Listen, I had a good time watching it – or if not a good time, then at least an engrossing time. But the little clues that something more melodramatic might be about to happen between our central characters ended up as distracting. And as a piece of cinema entertainment, while it didn’t do very much wrong, it didn’t really strike me as terribly exceptional either, except possibly in its restraint.
That’s how I’m feeling about most of the movies on the Best Picture list this year. Plenty are solid, workmanlike and entertaining enough, but few if any are genuinely remarkable. True there have so far been no turkeys like Amazingly Long and Incredibly Shit or even ill-conceived misfires like Warhorse but likewise there are no real stand-outs. Even The Revenant, certainly the most extraordinary film of the year, blots its copybook by going all Terrance Malik and wonkily spiritual from time-to-time in a manner which seems rather at odds with the rest of its triumph-over-absurdity storytelling and which is wisely abandoned at the end. It seems I did such a good job of mentally editing this out that I forget to mention it at all in my review. Rather like skimming over all the turgid poetry in The Lord of the Rings.
I also found a cinema still showing The Martian which I had greatly enjoyed reading on holiday a year or two ago. The book is a fast-moving popcorn science adventure story with smart plotting, a great sense of humour and a love for technical details which I really appreciated. There isn’t a lot more to say about the movie which captures the book pretty faithfully and where it does streamline or re-order events, does so intelligently and skilfully. Ridley Scott directs with pace and clarity, and seems generally in control of the narrative. A large group of supporting characters is well-differentiated and brought to life by a pleasingly diverse cast (even if the diversity of the cast does not always match the diversity of the name of the character they are playing). And Matt Damon is a very strong centre for the whole thing. If the climactic sequence is even more demented than the version in the book, that’s made-up-for by the new-for-the-movie coda which gives astronaut Mark Watney a chance to reflect on what his Martian adventures have given him.
So, that just leaves Room and The Big Short. Watch this space…