Thursday, November 5, 2015

Serious - and not in the right way

Spotlight is one of those films with a serious story to tell; the problem is that is takes itself way too seriously. What could have a been an enlightening movie is instead a somber, rather dull film that preaches its seriousness at almost every turn.

The title refers to a small investigative unit at the Boston Globe; the time is 2001 and a new editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has taken over. A quiet workhorse, he expects nothing less that the maximum effort from his employees, all the while realizing that he was hired to regain readership. With that in mind, he tells the editor of the Spotlight team Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) that he wants them to look into the stories of abuse of young boys by Catholic priests. There are a few reports that the paper has been made aware of, but Baron and Robinson know that they cannot get into a "he said, he said" argument with the Catholic Church; rather they must get to the root of the problem and learn the truth about the Church's dealings with the scandal in the large picture.

Thus the film starts off promisingly, as the reporters delve into their new assignment, while trying to deal with the whims of their new boss. On this level, the film has some life to it. But after that, it falls under its own weight of seriousness, as we get repeated scenes of the reporters looking up files, interviewing victims and answering phone calls. There's nothing particularly cinematic about this and Tom McCarthy's leaden, obvious direction does nothing to bring this film to life.

Make no mistake, this is an important story and bravo to the reporters at the Globe for their dedicated work in taking on the church, especially when Boston was (and remains) heavily Catholic. This could have been a gripping film, but about halfway through I couldn't wait for it to end. This is a talky film and while much of this is expository dialogue that helps explain the story and specific actions taken by certain characters, it's done in such a preachy way. There is a scene more than halfway in the film when one of the reporters, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, in a ridiculous haircut), argues with Robinson about the getting their damaging reports in print before a rival local newspaper gets the jump on them. It's one of those ACTING moments that you see in lesser films and here it's treated as though we were hearing about the apocalypse. McCarthy directs this scene with a sledgehammer as he fills the screen with Ruffalo's face, basically hitting the filmgoer over the head with the message that what the actor is saying is IMPORTANT. It's just too much and it ruins the moment.

When I watched this scene, I couldn't help but wish that someone with a similar approach as the late Otto Preminger would have directed it. Preminger was famous for showing us multiple characters in a scene and only using closeups when necessary. Thus, we as a filmgoer can look at the image as we wish - we're not told to look at one particular character. But in this scene, we are force fed Ruffalo's diatribe and it's all too much, which ruins the moment, as the message is not as important as the image.

We are also treated to too many of the same shots of reporters sitting in their office, asking each other questions about the progress of their work. Again and again, we get this similar scene, or else we get them talking on the phone about the investigation. They may be collecting evidence necessary to the plot, but we sit there wondering when we will see something different. This kind of storytelling hems in the actors - here we have talented performers such as Keaton and Ruffalo not being given any breathing space. We don't get Keaton's personality in this film - contrast his performance here with his brilliant work last year in Birdman. In that film, director Alejandro Gonzalex IƱarritu literally let Keaton soar; here all Keaton can do is sit in meetings and recite his lines. It's not a bad performance, but there's no substance here, as too often we listen to him utter dialogue such as "Good work" or "We can't run it yet."

At the film's conclusion, I was tired of how smug and self-important the filmmakers came across. They tried to make another All the President's Men, but failed on a large scope, as this film has none of the visual flair or subtleties of that wonderful Alan Pakula film.

If the tone of this film wasn't enough to turn me off, the final title cards surely did the trick. These mention how many other cities had to endure similar child abuse scandals; these title cards go on for a few minutes. Then we see a logo for SNAP (Survivors' Network for Abuse by Priests); talk about getting hit over the head! We got the message, already!

Finally, when I left the media screening of this film a few weeks ago, I was greeted by a woman who was a member of SNAP, who handed me her card. Honestly, I was insulted by this behavior. Couldn't I just see the film and make up my own mind?

P.S. One of the few positives I can report on with this film is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, attorney for the victims. Giving us a character who can never be pinned down and whose alliances shift over the course of the film, Tucci gives us a complex character, the only one in the film. He is the single actor in this work who sheds the lead boot of McCarthy's pompous direction.