Spotlight (Review)

Directed by Tom McCarthy, US, 2015

There are two types of great movies.  There are movies that push the envelope of the artform by introducing new techniques, effects, or story elements.  Then there are films that take existing elements and employ them with precision to tell an important story exceedingly well.  Spotlight belongs in the latter category.

In early 2002, the Boston Globe began publishing a series of stories that demonstrated how the Catholic Church covered up a shocking number of incidents of child molestation among its clergy. Spotlight is the story behind the story.   It is the story of how a group of reporters uncovered a horrifying conspiracy taking place within the confines of a respected institution of American life.

Comparisons to All the President’s Men (1976) are hard to avoid, and there is one key similarity that I’d like to point out.  We know the end of both stories, but that doesn’t eliminate the suspense.  There is danger around every corner, and it feels like someone is lurking to silence our heroes in every shadow.  After all, if the Catholic Church is so powerful that it can hide monsters within its own midst for decades, what chance do a bunch of newspaper reporters have against it?

There are two other keys to Spotlight’s success as a film.  The first is that no shots are wasted.  Even establishment shots tell part of the story (churches everywhere towering over poor neighborhoods).  Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is understated when it needs to be as well, letting the performances of the actors of the quality of the script tell the story without any contrived emotion.  The story is emotionally charged enough without needing to make it more so after all.

That brings me to my second point, I can’t say enough good things about the acting in this film.  Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, and Brian d’Arcy James are fantastic.   There is one monologue in particular from Ruffalo that I can’t do justice to by describing it in text.

Are there any negatives about Spotlight?  It is pretty conventional in its techniques, but it uses them so effectively that it doesn’t matter.  If it wins Best Picture next month I won’t be disappointed.

You might like Spotlight if: You appreciate movies that tell important stories exceedingly well.

You might not like Spotlight if: You’re looking for a movie with more technical achievements.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe



Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US, 2014

“What do you mean, Phib?” asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw – not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain.”

– Charles Dickens, from “Nicholas Nickleby”

When an actor looks into the mirror, what pleasant image does he see staring back?  Is the image larger than life? Capable of success in all artforms? Or do they not see the pleasant reflection?  What if they only see that which they hate the most?

We spend most of Birdman inside the crowded backstage of a small theater, but we spend the most time inside the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up superhero actor.  Keaton is fantastic in the role, and contrary to the most logical hypothesis, this is not because Keaton=Thomson. The only thing he and Thomson have in common is that their best known role is playing an iconic superhero (Thomson played the titular, fictitious Birdman).  Keaton, after all, has a filmography so long that it places him in the top percentile of working actors since Batman Returns (1992) and Thomson has nothing beyond his superhero role.

The film is isolating – mostly shot in small spaces and using a generous helping of tracking shots to limit perspective.  Iñárritu shows us that fame is isolating, but also addictive (a lesser director would merely tell us).  Thomson hates Birdman, but Thomson needs Birdman too.

When the film leaves Thomson’s perspective, it casts an examining eye on theater and its dysfunctional relationship with film.  Theater people hate movie people, but then they become movie people.  Then they try to become theater people again.  Then the theater people hate them even more, until they don’t.

Neither artform comes off well in Birdman.  Theater is shown as pompous and arrogant, film is shown as obsessed with violence and mayhem.  Yet somehow by criticizing the art, we reach an understanding of the people who make the art.

You might like Birdman if: You want to explore the mind of the artist and the conflict between “art” and “popular culture.”

You might not like Birdman if: Trippy movies disagree with you.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe