(I'm using this cast image because the poster fails to acknowledge Brian D'Arcy James)
Have you ever felt that pang of superiority when somebody brings up the latest TV series that’s taking the world by storm? They’ve just binged the first couple seasons and now they’re raving about it to anyone in their general vicinity. Have you ever heard of Breaking Bad? The Wire? Game of Thrones? It’s best to respond gently, lest you come off as a jerk, but you know perfectly well that you’ve been watching since the beginning. Patiently waiting a week until the next chapter. Letting the events of the previous episode simmer in your brain. I’m certainly not going to gloat about being on a bandwagon before everybody else, but from the moment I saw Tom McCarthy’s first film, I knew this guy was a filmmaker with a unique vision.
(McCarthy directing The Station Agent)
Tom McCarthy is a sly dog. Popping up in movies like Meet The Parents (2000) as an actor (Dr. Bob!) or having a major role in the amazing final season of The Wire, playing a journalist who fabricates a serial killer to boost his profile, he was also quietly making movies. He triumphed right out of the gate with The Station Agent (2003), an astonishing debut of heart and depth that provided Peter Dinklage with a rare lead and breakout role while also boosting the careers of Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale. The film is downright hilarious and deeply moving at the same time. McCarthy won a BAFTA for best original screenplay, proving once again that the English have excellent taste.
His follow-up would feature another unlikely lead in character actor Richard Jenkins. Once again coming up with a refreshing and original idea, The Visitor (2007) would continue McCarthy’s examination of outsiders and loners slowly coming out of their shells. Jenkins would receive an Oscar nomination for his work and it would be one of those rare moments when a reliable character actor stepped into the spotlight and nailed it.
McCarthy would contribute to the story for Pixar’s Up, yet another story of a loner, and then tackle Win Win (2011). Win Win is a fine film, very funny and sweet. I find it eminently watchable and have shown it to several family members. It’s not his strongest film and is not even particularly original, a quality McCarthy tends to bring to his films. It’s still very, very good. It may even be his most accessible film.
He almost lost it with The Cobbler (2014). I was horrified when I saw that the latest Adam Sandler bomb was being helmed by a favorite indie filmmaker. I am a staunch defender of early Sandler work like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, but lately Sandler, with the exception on Uncut Gems, seems like box office and artistic poison. On IMDB, McCarthy’s only available quotes are his philosophical musings on the abject failure of The Cobbler, where he’s not surprised by the critical response as much as he just doesn’t know how to take it since up until then his films were all critical darlings. Fortunately, his profile as a filmmaker was about to get a tremendous boost with an ambitious telling of real-life events.
The winner of two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Spotlight (2015) follows the Boston Globe investigative team as they uncover child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Taking place between 2001 and 2002, the film is a reminder of the power of journalism. The internet is certainly acknowledged, particularly with an AOL billboard glowering over the Boston Globe headquarters, but this story takes place before the internet would put many of these people out of work. Instead of constant Googling, we’re treated to people searching archives and tracking down leads. It would be insulting to claim that the film is just people talking for two hours. Thanks to the Oscar-winning screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer (who also wrote the unfairly ignored First Man), the scenes of “people talking” range from intriguing to absolutely engrossing. There’s built-in drama when you’re waiting for the big case to be cracked. Fortunately, the getting-there is worth the wait.
Boasting a powerhouse cast that received the SAG Best Ensemble award, McCarthy juggles several different plotlines involving their investigation. If Michael Keaton wasn’t a legitimate leading man once again now that his Hollywood exile has ended, I could see him being a possible nominee for Best Supporting Actor. In this case, he’s the de facto lead as he plays Robby Robinson, the editor of the “Spotlight” team. Working with him are Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James, each bringing a distinctive flavor to their performances. John Slattery plays a higher-up and Live Schreiber arrives as new editor-in-chief Marty Baron.
Spotlight is the heir apparent to All The President’s Men (1976), no doubt about it. The main difference between the films is the level of paranoia each achieves. Alan Pakula was a master of suspense in the 70’s. His films were full of individuals getting deeply involved in something much bigger than what they initially thought. In Men, there’s genuine danger. Phones and apartments are bugged. There’s a literal informant in deep cover and meetings are held in ominous parking decks that could only be lit by Gordon Willis. There’s a brief moment in Ruffalo’s apartment where you think the church has somehow cut off his phone, but it turns out to be false alarm. With Spotlight, the wrong-doers are hiding in plain sight. The only difference between them and other criminals is that they have the money and power to keep victims quiet and simply transfer priests from one parish to another with no consequences or repercussions. I don’t think I fully appreciated All the President’s Men until much later in life. Now I find it riveting. It’s a wonder of filmmaking, subtle filmmaking at that, which mainly consists of people talking.
Great characters are usually what drive a film and there are certainly plenty in this cast, but it’s the smaller roles that I think have the greatest impact. Two scenes taking place concurrently are McAdams’ interview with Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton) and Ruffalo’s interview with Patrick (Jimmy LeBlanc). Both men are vastly different and yet their abuse stories, also quite different, strike a familiar chord. That Catholic priests are to be trusted. Nothing they do can be wrong and to question that is essentially blasphemous. These dual performances from working actors, i.e. performers who have been in plenty of projects but are not movie stars, clarify the microcosm that these children and this community live in. The stories are difficult to listen to, but their importance can’t be understated.
During Patrick’s interview, he’s occasionally assisted by his attorney, played with great intensity and determination by Stanley Tucci. It’s a fabulous performance and a definite “not all heroes wear capes” situation. Tucci’s demeanor alone indicates that he believes in what he’s doing, but it’s likely he’s not very popular on the court circuit. He’s the type of man who is certainly right, but the way he goes about proving it rubs people the wrong way. At first, he tries to give Ruffalo the brush-off in a brusk and dismissive manner. He’s got no time for interviews. He has 84 lawsuits to take care of. It’s only after Ruffalo is forced to let the cat out of the bag and say he’s working on a story for “Spotlight” that we get a true idea of how influential this investigative team is to the general reading public. The scenes between Tucci and Ruffalo are among the film’s best. A scene in a diner where Tucci is starting to like and appreciate Ruffalo’s convictions has a classic feel. They discuss how native Bostonians look down on outsiders like them but are in fact no different from anyone else. Stanley Tucci states that it’s an outsider who will shake things up because it takes an outsider to see what's wrong in a society.
The editing is subtly brilliant. Again, McCarthy applies a concurrent method, juxtaposing very different scenes that are still essentially about the same things. While Ruffalo interviews Tucci in a cluttered and dingy law office, Keaton and McAdams visit Billy Crudup, the hot shot lawyer for the Archdiocese. The building is huge, spotless, and very modern. The conference room where Keaton grills Crudup about the victim’s settlements is vast. I’ve always found Crudup to be an intriguing actor. Handsome and charismatic, one would think he could easily have slipped into a career as an A-list movie star, doing big budget films and franchises. Basically, the Colin Farrell route. Instead, he often returns to theatre (where he won a Tony award) and then drifts back and forth between indie and studio projects like Waking the Dead, Watchmen, Almost Famous, and Stage Beauty. He walks a fine line between being a sleazy big-time lawyer and someone who wants to help them, but can’t. In his very last moment, he even reveals that he did help them, by sending a list of twenty pedophile priests but the Globe, particularly Keaton, buried it. Keaton eventually gets his longtime friend Jim (Jamey Sheridan) to give up the names of the priests he’s defended, likely dooming their friendship. There’s a recurring theme of destruction being left in the wake of the church’s actions.
The head priest, as it were, is Cardinal Law. I admit that because “Cardinal Law” sounds like some kind of doctrine, it took a few minutes to realize that they’re literally talking about a man. That man is played by the legendary Len Cariou. A character actor who has remained very busy for the last few decades also holds the distinction as being the original Sweeney Todd, a role for which he won a Tony. I always get excited when I see Cariou on screen. My first introduction to him may have been in the classic Lady in White (1988) as the terrifying Phil. He’s been a part of several high-profile projects, including his recurring role on Blue Bloods and features like Prisoners and About Schmidt. These are never huge parts, but he always plays them with aplomb. The scenes between him and Live Schreiber are great as he comes to realize that his idle chit-chat has no effect on this outsider. There’s a creep-factor that he’s unafraid to play ever so subtly while he sits on high.
Speaking of Broadway, Brian d’Arcy James, who I feel gets short shrift in this film, possibly because he’s not strictly a movie star like the others, is still very much worth mentioning. You might not know it, but the man has an incredible voice. In fact, I was fortunate enough to see him in the original production of Titanic the Musical in 1998. His performance as Burrs in the “other” The Wild Party musical is worth a listen as well. His voice is earth-shatteringly powerful, which you wouldn’t know from his low-key performance. His best scene is likely when he realizes that his home is quite close to one of the priests on the list of pedophiles. It’s heartbreaking when he asks Keaton permission to explain to his kids why they shouldn’t go near the house and Keaton won’t allow it for fear of the story leaking.
The most passionate of the reporters is Ruffalo, whose dogged efforts to force his way to the truth showcase his talents and gives the film it’s most dynamic and showy performance. He deserved his Oscar nomination, but it proves that the Academy does prefer big performances as opposed to subtlety. Ruffalo is a major advocate for various causes. Dark Waters (2019) is a very good film that allowed Todd Haynes to make a film that could act as a distant cousin to [SAFE ] (1995). When he discovers that the documents that will implicate Cardinal Law are public record, he races to the clerk’s office. It’s such a joy to watch the way he goes about getting these documents. He practically ambushes a judge to grant him access to the files, he has to wait for the clerk to get back from lunch and he even bribes the man at the desk to use his copy machine. It’s exhilarating to watch the pursuit of the truth and it adds suspense as we see how close the team is getting.
The other Oscar-nominee is Rachel McAdams, who has made a very successful transition from Mean Girls and The Notebook (both 2004) to more dramatic fare like Red Eye (2005) and Southpaw (2015). The relationship with her ultra-religious grandmother is quite sad. McAdams pursues her leads and even comes face to face quite by accident with one of the priests, played by Richard O’Rourke in a shocking scene. His matter-of-fact attitude towards the abuse is played with such realism by O’Rourke and McAdams’ restraint makes the encounter a standout. By the end of the film, when the piece comes out, she watches her grandmother reading, seeing the hurt and pain on her face. Her grandmother’s request for water drives home the fact that there is nothing to defend here and her whole world has been smashed, partially by her own granddaughter.
At the 2016 Academy Awards, there was a feeling of electricity in the air as viewers were truly uncertain which film would emerge victorious. Spotlight was certainly a front-runner. So was The Revenant. So was Mad Max: Fury Road. Who would’ve thought that a Mad Max movie could give the more traditional Oscar fare a guzzoline-fueled run for its money? I’ve read the stories that came from the set of The Revenant. I was not pleased. The stories of crew members quitting or getting fired smacked of a director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, who had gone power-crazy, much like Michael Cimino on The Deer Hunter (1978). I realize that’s not entirely fair and the way in which he shot The Revenant was extremely difficult, but I do think that you need to be cautious of the so-called “suffering for art’s sake” mantra that can so easily lead to disastrous results. I have seen all of Inarritu’s features and have enjoyed all of them, including Babel, which seemed to receive a great deal of backlash despite Oscar nominations. Amores Perros (2000) may still be his best film, but all of his work is distinctive and very important. I also felt that he had just won the Best Director Oscar for Birdman (2014) the year before, so it stood to reason that based off of the previous win and the crew abuse reports, he wouldn't win the award this time around. Alas, that wasn’t to be. Although I want to see more work from him, I’m pleased that he’s stepped back from feature work for a while, likely to recharge his batteries or even reflect on the experience of making The Revenant. I felt that the Oscar win would be a free pass for his behavior while I was hoping a loss would be a slap on the wrist for going too far for the sake of authenticity and being a prima donna.
It's very understandable why Tom McCarthy didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director. The Academy likes big, bold movies or something so different that the artistry is undeniable. McCarthy does an amazing job presenting the investigation in a clear manner. The juggling of the stories is very well done. There are even a few great shots, including a long pull-back while the team listens on the phone that recalls a few moments in All the President’s Men. I’d even go so far as to say who really deserved the award was George Miller for Mad Max, but that’s a very different article.
I hope that Tom McCarthy continues making films for a long time, but it’s satisfying to see him reach a sort-of career culmination with Spotlight. An indie darling who rose up to take the biggest prize in the film industry. And I was there from the beginning.