Film: Spotlight (2015)
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Director: Tom McCarthy
Oscar History: 6 nominations/2 wins (Best Picture*, Director, Supporting Actor-Mark Ruffalo, Supporting Actress-Rachel McAdams, Original Screenplay*, Film Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars
(Spoilers Ahead) Spotlight to me is a rather unconventional Best Picture frontrunner, but it's not due to the plot being particularly AMPAS-unfriendly. The film is about the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic priest sex scandals, the sort of deeply serious film that the Oscars adore, and is filled with a slew of Academy-friendly names like Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci. All-in-all, the film's casting, director, and subject matter lend itself to the seriousness that you usually need to land Best Picture, but there's something strangely methodical in the film's approach that, while never bad, it is so clicking and sharp it feels very similar to a television movie rather than a major big-screen experience.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's rarely a scene where the movie tries and goes for one of those big, emotional reveals that always feel sort of uncomfortably exploitive of a recent tragedy (where one person feels belittled after having to give up a reporter's story, just to see the reporter gain from the anguish). Instead, the movie is a series of calm revelations, slowly as the world onscreen starts to show the tragedies that have befallen not only Boston, but the world in watching one of its oldest institutions falter under the weight of unimaginable evil and criminal behavior. In this way it feels like the sort of film that would gain more attention from critics, who admire the documentarian style it takes in the subject, instead sitting back and showing the process rather than the human side of the conflicts, which is what AMPAS always admires. As a result, it's an interesting movie, but one that I wouldn't expect AMPAS to go for (with The Martian, Brooklyn, and Carol all making plays for Best Picture, we've still yet to see if Oscar does love Spotlight like the pundits anticipate).
As for me, I'm somewhere in-between. I liked the more journalism-focused take on the story, as it gave a slightly new perspective to a news story everyone in the world knows about and read about over the past decade. It's interesting to watch the story unfold, seeing the ways that the film finds facts, and how it basically becomes an advertisement for quality journalism in a landscape where you can't see a decent reporter to save your life on a cable news show, where most people get their daily reels now. However, I do think that the film's recent story angle, where everyone in the country knows what will happen onscreen and has the benefit of hindsight (with dozens of archdioceses having been indicted in the molestation scandals, everyone in the audience wants to smack anyone upside-the-head who is covering for the Catholic Church, or even has a shred of doubt that they could be condoning such a thing since we all know the truth), occasionally makes their reporters seem clueless. It's hard for us to remember that there was genuine surprise around the reveals of the Boston Globe, but cinematically it occasionally feels like this story is either too late or too early. While the focus on journalism is interesting from this perspective and occasionally saves it (we see the hard work that goes into a story, and the consistent hunt for facts and clues), when it focuses on the "how could they cover this up?" for audience outrage, we were already there and it feels repetitive.
The cast itself is strange, which is weird as none of these actors feels out-of-place. For a film that is clearly intended to be an actor's movie, it really isn't and is instead more of a writer's one. The cast all has its moments, and with the exception of Mark Ruffalo is very subdued, but there aren't as many obvious standouts as you'd expect from what Oscar prognosticators are predicting (they may be correct, but these aren't your traditional nominees in the same sense that this isn't a traditional Best Picture frontrunner). Michael Keaton's central role may be the best, if only because it's perhaps the only character we learn any sort of real backstory about, while Rachel McAdams (whom I predicted a few weeks ago could be an Oscar contender, but now I think she'll at best land a nomination) shows almost nothing in her character and really is just the only woman in a man's field (a good angle to get a nomination, but it wouldn't be worth wasting the spot in this year). Mark Ruffalo gets the showiest role, and does get a few of the "great speeches" you'd expect here ("it could have been any of us!"), but it feels so out-of-place in the film that Ruffalo can't really sell the scenes and they come off as off-sync to the rest of the film.
So is this a good movie? Yes, it is. Is it a great one? No, it's not, and I'm perplexed why so many people have decided to call in an All the President's Men for a new generation, as that film had considerably more intrigue than this one did, and quite frankly more memorable acting. Maybe Spotlight will age well, with 10-15 years passing away and we see the last breaths of print journalism and what technology and lowest-denominator cable may have cost us in our quest for the truth. Who knows, but in the meantime I will continue to be perplexed by this unusual film's dominance in Oscar conversation, and it's universal acclaim.
Those are my thoughts on Spotlight, a film I liked but couldn't really get into-what are yours? Do you think the film will be a major contender at this year's Oscars (or will my review sound foolish in a few weeks)? And if it is, which actors do you think will have a shot at a nomination? Share your thoughts below!