With a resume of modest and economical dramas reflecting on everyday folk, director Thomas McCarthy has taken an unassuming approach to charismatic ensembles like his previous films Win Win and The Station Agent. His newest effort, Spotlight, continues that economy but with a sharper urgency that demands your attention and earns your rage. Expect more than your average true story of journalistic heroism.
In 2002, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team (the oldest investigative journalism crew in the country) uncovered cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests within the Boston community and the infrastructure within the church that allowed the abuse to continue. Their findings revealed systemic implications for the global Catholic church and earned them a Pulitzer Prize, not to mention creating a national dialogue that allowed further silenced victims to come forward. Spotlight’s members, as depicted in the film, all connect personally with the case in various ways, but their work is fueled by the silent cycle of abuse perpetuated by those in and outside the church willfully turning a blind eye.
McCarthy thrives on providing his actors with a solid balance between averageness and idiosyncrasy – his characters are often written to provide a certain familiarity to the audience while being unique in quiet ways. This is one of the key elements of Spotlight that prevent it from becoming a typical journalistic true story drama and elevates it above the mix. Given so much room for specificity, the actors are able to root the drama with such hearty naturalism that it further invests the audience into the true aspects of the story.
The ensemble carries the weight miraculously. Steering the Spotlight crew, and perhaps the entire set of actors, Michael Keaton continues his recent resurgence delivering a performance pitched with as much regret as resolve. Rachel McAdams, still underestimated and undervalued, solidly embodies conflicting calm and determination, particularly in an unsettling scene that demands her to be simultaneously rattled and unrelenting. There are plenty of notable names and faces in this crew – with Brian D’Arcy James being the stealth charmer – but it’s the unrecognizable members that play the victims, all sharply present and believable, that stun. Their contribution is what makes this the ensemble performance of the year.
Crucially, the script isn’t without levity – McCarthy previously mentioned trademark idiosyncratic observational ear paints these characters with their necessary wit. Not only creating further reality of behavior for the characters, the humor smartly punctuates the drama, inviting the audience in on a subject that they still might otherwise keep at arm’s length. Delivered on a tight edit that knows when to take its foot off the gas and when to play into our collective rage, Spotlight is difficult to ignore. McCarthy is astutely playing to his strengths in unexpected ways, using character and specificity to absorb the audience into a crisis of which they have been denied details and turned a blind eye.
Spotlight is a creative leap forward for Thomas McCarthy yet still in sync with his somewhat blue collar sensibilities. Using the same techniques that have led to a more passive experience in his previous work, here he aims to rattle you and create conversation with honest human behavior and a passion for simple common good. Always playing into an American idealism of caring for one’s neighbor and doing what’s right, here he broadens his canvas to something with significantly larger ramifications – while keeping it effectively intimate – achieving that just as adeptly as when his sights were more modest.
Perhaps it is that importance of the intimate that makes Spotlight induce so much rage – the victims all feel deeply familiar, even if what happened them is thankfully not. With an ending punctuated with relieving redemption and then stoking the flames of further revelations, the film is going to both cinematically please and socially frustrate audiences – and hopefully familiarize them with a filmmaker who has thus far been taken for granted.