Friday, 5 February 2016

Spotlight


Spotlight could seem like pure, simple Oscar-bait. It could very easily have turned out to be nothing more than a shocking true story told on the big screen through a non-stop barrage of big, Oscar-y moments giving a handful of talented actors an easy nomination. Quite simply this is a film that, with even just a few minor tweaks, could have fallen on the wrong side of preachy and wound up a patronising and loud, shouty feature. Spotlight is, in fact, none of this. It remains calm, and it keeps itself collected. The actors aren't given any loud, explosive moments; one sequence featuring Mark Ruffalo comes dangerously close, but we'll talk about that more later. There are no big dramatic showdowns, there is no enormous final act. Spotlight simply takes a powerful true story and tells it extremely effectively and with the conviction it deserves, and it does so without ever grasping at exaggeration or award-bait. It's for that reason that this is my pick for this year's coveted Best Picture prize.

Spotlight focuses on a talented and professional team of journalists who are tasked with investigating into the priests within the Catholic Church who have been accused of child molestation and abuse, yet when the investigation heats up it is discovered that the ordeal is much bigger than anyone ever realised. Obviously, this is a story that was just waiting to be adapted into a major motion picture, and it would have been incredibly easy to botch it entirely. It's supremely impressive, therefore, how controlled Spotlight remains throughout. Both the director and the cast have such a superb hold on this story and these characters that the film remains engrossing and utterly compelling from the offset, refusing to let go until well after the credits have rolled. I've spoken recently, in my review for The Revenant, about the importance of a film's ability to retain its hold on you after it has ended. When Spotlight ended, I was physically and emotionally shaken. The next day I could not get the story out of my head. I'm writing this review three days after seeing the film, and I still feel the same way. This is what I'm talking about.

Many of the film's detractors (if it even has any) would simply put this down to the fact that the true story it tells is indisputably shocking, but I disagree. Yes this story is horrific, but it's the way it's been told on screen that allows its impact to remain even days after viewing it. Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, for example, told an almost equally devastating true story, but its lackluster execution forced it out of my memory before I'd even left the cinema screen. With Spotlight, writer/director Tom McCarthy has crafted a powerful representation of a powerful story, and this is mostly achieved through his exceptional use of the film's central characters. They are never portrayed as blood-thirsty journalists merely undergoing the investigation in hope for a raise, yet neither are they shown as well rounded angels with hearts of gold. It's very easy to understand and appreciate that these people care about the victims and are passionate about seeking justice, but we similarly accept that this is simply their job. There are moments where they make mistakes, in fact there is a particular moment near the story's ending which reveals one character to have made a monumental error before the film's narrative, yet we think highly of them both as people and professionals. It's an extremely difficult line to walk, but McCarthy's script is excellent in the ways it walks it.

This is, of course, helped an awful lot by the committed and gripping performances by essentially the entire cast. Despite a total lack of an "Oscar moment", Rachel McAdams more than earns her nomination simply by portraying her character well, and allowing the various aspects of her personality to shine through. Michael Keaton is equally as impressive as the team's leader, balancing his character between harshly authoritative and enjoyably dedicated. Each member of the Spotlight team has an interesting and unique personality, and the film does a fantastic job of proving that the real investigation was indeed a team effort. If there is a standout here, though, it is Ruffalo. His character is given the meatiest material across the film, and he succeeds in making it all seem real. There are moments in which his sheer coldness transcends oozes out of the screen, yet when he is tasked with raising his voice and delivering the film's closest thing to an "Oscar moment" he keeps his performance controlled enough to avoid it all falling apart. After 90 minutes of generally calm film-making it would have been gutting if Spotlight eventually gave in to your typical Oscar tropes. It comes frighteningly close, but Ruffalo is the film's saving grace: the one scene that makes you worry that things could start falling apart he turns into one of the greatest and most memorable moments of the film.

Spotlight's greatest assets are for sure its story, its script and its cast, but it's also nice that the film is nicely photographed throughout. Whilst it might not come close to the cinematography standards of, say, The Revenant (not many films do, after all) there are enough shots that makes you appreciate the intricate camerawork, but not so many that it upsets the film's controlled nature. Essentially everything here comes together to deliver an absolute sucker punch of a film. Spotlight is packed with emotional moments, but it has the willpower to never over dramatise them. It has an A-list cast all on the verge of empowering Oscar-bait speeches, yet it favours strong and interesting character dynamics over big and showy performances. It's an astonishing achievement, and the fact that it is bound to a tragically devastating true story demonstrates the sheer power of superlative storytelling. With average execution, this could have been a sloppy and exaggerated feature. But everyone here is on their A-game, and the results could not be better. Yes, there is a shocking true story at the bottom of this film, but it just would not have this impact without the phenomenal work from all involved. Calm, controlled and so very far from conventional Oscar-bait, if Spotlight goes unrewarded come the 28th then that's yet another scandal waiting to be adapted into a film. I just highly doubt it would be as sensational as this one.

To Summarise: Boasting impressively controlled performances from its cast and a superb effort from writer/director Tom McCarthy, Spotlight demonstrates the emotional power of both cinema and storytelling when true events are adapted to the big screen with the film-making skill they deserve.

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