I started reading about Spotlight a few months ago. The film had already made waves on the festival circuit prior to its wide release in November. While reading up on the film, I ‘discovered’ its director Tom McCarthy. I hadn’t realized that I had actually seen a couple of films in which he was a supporting actor. He is completely unmemorable on-screen as an actor. But he is the real deal as a writer and director. He wrote the story for the Pixar classic Up. He has also directed 3 amazing feature films (and one dud featuring Adam Sandler). It turned out I had already seen one of them from 2008 called The Visitor, for which Richard Jenkins received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. It’s not often that senior citizen actors get those sorts of meaty roles. So in the last few weeks, I watched the other two movies – his debut effort The Station Agent (2003) and the high school wresting dramedy (not often you read those 4 words in a single string!) Win Win from 2011. The lead character in The Station Agent is played by Peter Dinklage, who is now very well known as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. The lead character in Win Win is a high school wrestling coach played by the irrepressible Paul Giamatti.
I started to see a pattern; all McCarthy’s films are about ordinary people living low profile lives, who come across an unusual disruption in their mundane lives. The films focus on how the characters deal with change, overcoming their own fears or helping others overcome theirs. There is always a hint of melancholy in his films, but they are ultimately all feel-good movies with endearing characters and sequences that are eminently re-watchable!
Spotlight however, is a very different type of film. Instead of working with low key character actors, McCarthy goes for some big names this time – Michael Keaton (fresh off his Oscar for Birdman last year), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk from The Avengers), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes), Stanley Tucci, Liev Schrieber, etc.
McCarthy’s other films have been highly acclaimed because they were whimsical, featuring quirky characters in unusual situations. Spotlight is highly acclaimed for other reasons; it is an important film. The subject matter is weighty, based on the true story of how a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered a systemic cover-up of pedophilia by the Catholic Church in Boston for decades. I was initially quite unprepared for this change of pace. The film runs like a documentary; there are no fancy cinematic tricks; the story follows a linear narrative, there is no fast editing or fancy camera angles or dramatic music. This is a story of some ordinary people just doing their jobs. The full weight of what they achieved comes right at the end – the day after the story runs, the phones in the department are ringing non-stop as other victims call to tell their stories.
Mark Ruffalo brings his characteristic intensity to the role, reminding me of a similar role he played as a police inspector in the serial killer mystery Zodiac (2007). Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber and Rachel McAdams are effective because their portrayals are so subtle. Special mention of Bryan D’Arcy James, an actor whose work I have not seen before; he plays one of the journalists in the team.
Spotlight will pick up a bunch of awards this season; not because it has broken any new ground in the art of filmmaking, but because it tells an important story in a compelling, believable manner. Be sure to watch McCarthy’s other films as well – The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win.