Spotlight (2015)

2016 #144
Tom McCarthy | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue
2016 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 2 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), Best Director, Best Film Editing.

SpotlightThe most recent Best Picture Oscar winner tells of how the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism unit, the eponymous Spotlight team, exposed the widespread sexual abuse of children by the local Catholic Church — and, just as shockingly, the way the institution itself swept this under a rug for decades. As a film, this story is effectively a conspiracy thriller: a team of journalists expose a wide-reaching criminal cover-up within a respected and powerful institution. If it were fiction, you’d struggle to believe it, the scale of the conspiracy so vast that the very notion of it would be implausible. So it’s all the more astonishing — and horrifying — that it was real. And, as the closing title cards reveal, far larger than the Spotlight team realised even when they went to print.

There are many fascinating true stories that have produced merely adequate movies, so it’s something else again that transforms Spotlight into a Best Picture winner — albeit a somewhat controversial one, in that it came in a year when the top award went to one of three different films at the major awards (the others being The Revenant and The Big Short), rather than a consensus emerging as the various ceremonies all rewarded the same film (as usually happens, more or less); relatedly, it was the first Best Picture winner for over 60 years to only nab one other gong. More pertinently, doubts about the film’s deservingness stem from criticisms of its relatively plain directorial style, its focus on the plot rather than the characters within it, and its monomaniacal attention to the process of investigation rather than the thing being investigated.

In my opinion, the film’s storytelling would be better described as no-nonsense. It actually takes confidence to be this understated, I think. Tom McCarthy’s direction isn’t slickly shot and edited to make the story seem like a whizz-bang fast-paced thriller; nor is it affectedly artistic or indie, the kind of style this sort of low-to-mid-budget drama often resorts to nowadays. Talking around tablesInstead, it lets the story and the events speak for themselves, with the screenplay being the real powerhouse here. On that scale the directing isn’t even in second place. That’d be the performances, as the actors carry the delivery of information while still feeling like human beings pursuing an investigation, rather than mere narrators of what they discovered. McCarthy’s work is therefore the kind of helmsmanship that wouldn’t attract awards attention, except maybe by association with the film’s overall acclaim (he did get nominations, but the cynical side of me doubts awards bodies genuinely appreciated the qualities of what they were watching). Nonetheless, awards are not the be-all-and-end-all, and the low-impact style was surely the right way to go. This is a tale bigger than auteurist showboating, and McCarthy handles it with appropriate respect.

I think the perceived lack of characterisation for the journalists is due to similar reasons — both that the film has different fish to fry, and also that it goes about such business with greater subtlety. Personally, I think you come away with a really good sense of who these men and women are as people; at the very least, how they are in their work environment, which at the end of the day is where we’re observing them. This is accumulated through how they behave in interviews and meetings, how they react to developments and revelations, how they do their jobs. It’s good writing and good acting, because there are no scenes devoted to merely “exploring character” or whatever. There are allusions to their private lives without making them full-blown subplots, and that’s a good thing — this tale doesn’t need embellishing with a shoehorned romance or a failing marriage. That said, Walking down corridorsthis is also perhaps where the film’s only egregious bum note comes in: Ruffalo’s shouty speech about how they need to go to press now, which was naturally used across all the trailers and clips. It feels like that is precisely what that speech was designed for — that it was written, directed, and acted with the “here’s our big dramatic trailer moment” in mind. It’s not entirely out of character in context, but it is a bit much.

One reason it feels out of place is that the film perhaps hasn’t quite whipped up our fury at the situation to the same level. That’s not to say it’s soft on it — there are horrifying tales and facts related — but while the film is about historic Catholic abuse, it’s really about journalism. Other critics of the movie accuse it of telling the abuse story in a way that could be better covered through a documentary or reading a Wikipedia article, but I think that misses what makes Spotlight really tick. It’s the process the journalists go through — how they uncover the story as much as what they uncover — that the film is demonstrating for us. Sure, you can read a Wikipedia article to find out what they unearthed, but without them unearthing it in the first place there’d be no Wikipedia article to read. That’s what the film is really about. These events happened 15 years ago; the truth they outed has been a massive story ever since — that’s not something that needs fresh exposure (other than it never hurting to remind people). But as the world moves away from proper journalism, into the realm of amateur bloggers rehashing press releases and ‘professional’ organisations running endless clickbait listicles because that’s where the advertising revenue is, it’s a timely reminder that it’s this kind of proper, old-fashioned journalism that can expose massive, important issues; issues that you might think the police or legal system should expose, but which they’re sometimes (maybe even often) complicit in.

Talking at desksSo was it the best film of last year? Perhaps that depends what you look for in movies. As much as I think the understatement fits, I also think it’s what stops it from being as cinematically exciting as, say, the visually-driven hyper-kinetic storytelling of Fury Road. But to focus too much on the deservingness or otherwise of awards is to miss the point. Much like it doesn’t need flashy camerawork or editing, or diversions into the characters’ private lives, so Spotlight doesn’t need awards to make you pay attention. It’s a story about the importance of independent investigation, told in a strong but no-frills fashion that befits the weight of the material.

5 out of 5

Spotlight is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Calvary (2014)

2016 #91
John Michael McDonagh | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Ireland & UK / English | 15 / R

From the director of In Bruges’ older brother (who, in fairness, made a name for himself with 2011 comedy The Guard, which I’ve still not got round to) comes this dark (very dark) comedy drama — with emphasis on the latter, I suppose, but it is very funny along the way.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard) stars as Father James, a priest in a small Irish town. One day at confession he’s told he is going to be murdered. Not for anything he did wrong, but precisely the opposite — because he is a good priest. The mysterious threatener gives him a week to get his affairs in order. Over the next seven days, we follow James as he interacts with his characterful parishioners, and are led to ponder which of them might be the would-be assassin, especially as so many seem cynical and nasty. All the while, James struggles internally with what is the right thing to do.

That’s the story of Calvary, at any rate, but it’s fairly clear that it’s about something more. What exactly that is, however, is a matter of debate. Could it be an apologia for the church and the wrongs it has inflicted in living memory? It certainly leans into those issues: without spoiling anything, the inciting incident is related to historic abuse, but the film is showing that priests aren’t all like that — that some people in the church are actually good, or at least as good as any of the rest of us — which I should imagine is true. That doesn’t make the film an apology, nor an excuse, but does raise a point: should the innocent be blamed for the wrongdoings of the guilty just because they share a belief? I think most rational people would agree they should not. Nonetheless, I’ve read at least one commenter, who I’m presuming was a hardened atheist, castigate the film for daring to feature a good priest, as if the very concept of one existing was a heinous and offensive suggestion. Conversely, in the special features Chris O’Dowd speaks of his initial wariness that this was going to be another “bad priest” movie, and how that doesn’t align with his personal experience of the clergy.

So could it, instead, merely be a snapshot of Irish society, in particular its current relationship with the church? Surely that’s part of what’s in play, with the cynical, dismissive, teasing, sometimes hateful attitudes of the parishioners surely no coincidence. Some viewers have certainly taken this as the film’s primary talking point, and some have been less than impressed that it doesn’t align with their view of modern Ireland. (I’m in no position to comment.) Neither of these feel like they’re getting at the totality of what it’s saying, though.

Nonetheless, the way the film presents itself is not at fault. The acting is strong across the board, none more so than Gleeson. He brings all kinds of facets to a man who could’ve been a blank page on which to project the other colourful characters, and he truthfully conveys major character moments and changes of direction without the need for dialogue. O’Dowd surprises in a rare non-comedic role, while further able support comes from recognisable faces like Kelly Reilly (as James’ troubled daughter), Dylan Moran (as a nouveau riche dick) , Marie-Josée Croze (as a bereaved holidaymaker), M. Emmet Walsh (as an ageing author), and — for just one scene, but a good one — Domhnall Gleeson (you can discover what he is when you watch it). And no offence to Aidan Gillen, but his smarmy atheist doctor feels like the kind of part he always plays.

That’s not to exclude the less familiar names, some of whom deliver many of the biggest laughs, like Killian Scott (as a slightly worrying simpleton), David Wilmot (as James’ naïve fellow clergyman), and Owen Sharpe (as a Brooklyn-accented promiscuous gay) — though if you watch Ripper Street, you may have seen a couple of them in quite different guises. And though it may be a cliché, McDonagh has successfully made the location a character, too: the towering mountain, an accidental discovery once on location, adds the looming presence the director hoped it would.

Calvary may in fact be a great film, if only I could put my finger on what I think it’s really trying to get at, which remains frustratingly out of my reach, at least for now. However, I will say it’s a very good one, and anyone who likes a character-driven drama scattered with dark but hilarious humour would do well to seek it out.

4 out of 5

Calvary is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.