Have you noticed how The Academy (the organization behind The Oscars, for those less cinematically inclined) loves movies about filmmaking? The Academy has always favored movies about movies, Hollywood, or theater. Look at some of the most recent Best Picture winners: Birdman (about theater and crazed actors), Argo (about making a fake movie), and The Artist (about an actor in silent movies) all, arguably, did not actually deserve the year's highest honor.
You may not agree with me that these films are overrated. It can come down to a difference of opinion. It is, however, a fact that Spotlight is receiving rave reviews from professional film journalists, and it's a fact that Spotlight is a movie about professional journalism.
Does this mean that journalists are overrating the movie because it's about journalism? I think so. Good news, though: I think that Spotlight is a truly great film. I just thought I'd warn you outright that it's not as perfect as you may have read. It's a gripping procedural that handles its sensitive subject matter skillfully, even if it's paced a bit too rapidly to focus on character.
The movie is named after a real journalism team covering unfortunately real events. In the early 2000s, the Boston Globe's "Spotlight team"- an acclaimed investigative unit for the newspaper- uncovered a number of child sex abuse scandals surrounding priests in the Catholic Church and a conspiracy by the Church to hide them. That these events transpired is common knowledge now (a stereotype even), but back at the turn of the 21st century, it took a team of mightily talented journalists to overcome the Catholic Church's pushback and reveal the truth.
Portraying these talented journalists is a cast of equally talented actors. Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo lead the team, at least in screen time. Both actors continue trends that they've been on throughout their recent films. Keaton's performance as team leader Walter Robinson demonstrates a knowledge of restraint that was exaggerated in Birdman: he knows he's playing a human person here, not a caricature, but still dials up the drama exactly when it's necessary to the story.
Ruffalo's convincingly conflicted Mark Rezendes is caught between fond childhood memories of the Church and journalistic integrity, a role that echoes Ruffalo's Oscar-worthy work in this year's Infinitely Polar Bear in its emotional turbulence. He could earn a nomination for this as well.
I could write at length about the other impressive performances that populate Spotlight. Rachel McAdams bleeds sympathy for the abused victims, Liev Schreiber is firm and driven, Stanley Tucci's boisterous personality is channeled into a passionate fury, and Billy Crudup manages to be sleazy and vile. Every actor portraying a victim earns our emotion. The movie is full of actors on their A-game, particularly because it's apparent they share a respect for the serious themes at play. Their desire to tell this story due to its importance is tangible.
However, this did leave me with an unfulfilled desire to get to know these characters better. Spotlight is unavoidably a procedural at heart: it has a true story to tell that is best relayed as a series of chronological events. There is so much to cover, and McCarthy and Singer's screenplay is so tirelessly dedicated to covering every minor detail of the investigative journalism process, that the movie is paced somewhat relentlessly. It almost always feels rushed, and character development suffers for it.
This wouldn't be a problem if Spotlight was mainly focused on story, but it makes a repeated effort to dig into how some members of the Spotlight team are personally affected by the scandals. This does give way to the movie's most memorably emotional scenes, especially when the journalists interact with victims- but it mostly teases us with promises of getting to know these people that are never followed through on. The tone tends to shift between the personal and the procedural a bit awkwardly.
Where McCarthy's writing falters, his direction is assured. He utilizes the "invisible style of filmmaking": that is, his direction is effective but never calls attention to itself. He also respects the gravity of the real story and prefers to let the cinematic representation speak for itself.
And what a story it is! Spotlight hugely benefits from an inherently compelling story in the uncovering of the Catholic sex scandal. The movie's stakes are painted with tighter strokes as more information is gathered, perfectly encapsulating journalistic discovery. As the Catholic conspiracy comes to light, Spotlight transforms into a memorable and essential film- and the ending summarizes the film's serious themes with a powerful punch.
It may not be perfect, but I understand the hype: if I was a professional journalist, its missteps could be easily overlooked.