Saturday, December 19, 2015

Spotlight


Sometimes awards season presents me with unexpected quandaries. What to do, for example, with Spotlight, a "based on a true story" drama that manages to actually become a thought provoking, enraging-yet-positive film going experience?  It's a hell of a lot better than another watered down morality play or record-expunging biopic.  The thing has a pulse and a brain, enough energy to remain entertaining even as it feels like the sort of story meant for a sparsely staged theatrical production or a rarely checked-out nonfiction text.  Yet, it's filmed with such a lack of aplomb that it almost seems like the living version of the newsprint journalism it covers.  

The story follows the Boston Globe's investigative 'Spotlight' team as they work to unearth the truth of widespread molestation allegations and cover-ups in the Catholic Church. The real life story broke in 2001,  and while I have a vague recollection of this coming out as a thing the masses were shocked by (though many seemed to take it as confirmation of a - sadly - foregone conclusion), the movie hits all the right notes to allow it to seem like a potent and necessary reminder of just how little has likely changed.  Spotlight is a political piece of art, and a good one if we measure it by its ability to take what we already know, re-frame it, show us nothing of the actual horror, but enrage us all over again. While we're largely confined to file rooms, courthouses, and office spaces, we are made to understand both the severity of events and the pressure of getting the information exactly right.  So, it's a good movie. It may even be a great movie in some ways.  And yet - as noted - it's also a bit of a quandary.  Why?  Well, for all its merits in acting, writing, and pacing, it's the sort of film venture that doesn't seem to take any advantage of the medium it's using.  There's a muted flatness here, something so bland that at times the film has the visual impact of listening to an especially gripping episode of Serial.  For a movie that could benefit from reaching viewers, it skimps on style and doesn't bother pretending that most are going to watch it on anything larger than their tablet.  


There are decisions that have been made here. While it seems fair to say that the filmmakers had an interest in keeping the material foregrounded, it's also unfortunate.  Spotlight is the type of film with seriously strong narrative content, but why skip out on attention to visual aspects of its formal presentation? Why not find some stronger angles? Why not use some framing that echoes the claustrophobia of the institution or the smallness of the crew in the face of giants? Why not break out some film stock capable of transforming boring office spaces into something a little oppressive or shadowy?  Spotlight looks like it was filmed under the shitty fluorescent tubing of the office it sets up, and I'm just going to say it - even if you're working towards absolute realism - there's never a reason for that.

At this point, you may be wondering when I'm going to stop speaking about these large scale formal issues and get to the meat of its smaller elements.  You want to know, maybe, how the performances stack up or what was going on with Mark Ruffalo's accent.  The answers are: solid, understated and I'm really not sure.  Or, maybe you want to know about the film's intentions beyond simply being a gripping story. Or, why it is I seem to think that being a gripping story isn't quite enough.  The answer to that is that it both is and isn't.  Or, it is until medium-specific accolades pour in at a time when people keep saying cinema is "at risk" or that it's been a terrible year for movies.  This is why every critic/movie aficionado seems to run towards a comparison between this film and All the President's Men. It's good enough to warrant it, but suffers a fundamental difference: one film looks made for the big screen, the other looks made for television. There's something that's just plain frustrating about that, particularly when you're looking at work that's smart enough, solid enough, and aware enough to make itself just that much better.

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