Celebrating the Invisible Artistry and Great Direction of ‘Spotlight’

Open Road Films

The 2016 Academy Award nominations have just been announced, but Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight has been the frontrunner for months. It was anointed the film to beat for Best Picture way back in September, when it debuted to rapturous reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sure enough, when John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs revealed this year’s nominees, the drama about the Boston Globe reporters who revealed a sex-abuse cover-up within the Catholic Church earned six nods, including Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Picture. According to most experts (and Google search results) it’s sitting in pole position heading into the home stretch of awards season.

But frontrunner status comes with a price, namely heightened expectations and criticism, even for a movie that previously drew near-universal consensus (including the Vatican’s official radio station). Once a movie becomes an award favorite it also becomes a target, at which point it’s not longer enough to be an outstanding thriller; it must also be an all-time great work of art. And thus a quiet backlash begins to pick up steam and volume. It’s going to keep getting louder until Oscar night.

The primary source of criticism about Spotlight, even from people who generally like the movie, is McCarthy’s “unsexy” direction. The movie doesn’t have the overwhelming natural vistas of The Revenant or the dynamic camera swoops of Mad Max: Fury Road. It wasn’t shot in the epic sweep of Ultra Panavision 70mm like The Hateful Eight, or the rich grain of Carol’s Super 16mm. It was mostly filmed indoors with a digital camera capturing nondescript medium shots harshly lit by fluorescent bulbs. Critics describe McCarthy’s direction as “barely workmanlike” and “bland as f---.” Some folks joke that the movie was so poorly directed that it wasn’t even directed at all.

Spotlight certainly doesn’t have the visual panache of The Revenant or The Hateful Eight, but that doesn’t automatically make it a lesser film. Lavish cinematic style is not an automatic and objective good. It needs to suit the material. And it would not suit the material in Spotlight. This is a story about singularly focused journalists who work tirelessly but anonymously in a drab, nondescript office. These are not glamorous people performing exotic activities. They wear big puffy shirts and pleated khakis. They constantly scribble in writer’s notebooks. They hang out in forgotten library archives next to rotting rat carcasses.

Spotlight’s direction is “unsexy” because it depicts a world that is unsexy; it is “workmanlike” because it depicts a world of work. If the Boston Globe reporters’ jobs were fun and exciting, everyone would do them and the newspaper business would be thriving. The whole point of the film is to show why these journalists’ efforts were important in spite of the fact that what they did was, by and large, boring, tedious, and monotonous. Gussying up this film with elaborate camera shots and eye-catching angles would be a betrayal of everything Spotlight represents. In the same way that the Spotlight team keep themselves out of the story, McCarthy keeps himself out of the movie.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not there, or that film direction is purely the sum total of a movie’s flashy camera moves. Careful consideration of Spotlight reveals McCarthy’s subtle but brilliant direction, not just in terms of cinematography but production design, art direction, and editing as well. Little of it is showy and most of it is easy to miss, particularly if you get caught up in the riveting drama of the Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church and its unseemly practices.

Notice, for example, the way McCarthy effectively uses framing and cross-cutting to establish the difference in lifestyles and attitudes between Spotlight’s two key institutions; the Catholic Church and the Boston Globe. The movie is structured as a series of contrasting scenes and spaces: Cramped and cluttered for the Globe and its reporters, expansive and opulent for the Church and its well-compensated minions. Here is the Boston Globe’s conference room at the paper’s morning meeting. Seats are at such a premium that Michael Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson has to perch himself on a desk against the wall.

And here’s the conference room of Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), a defense attorney who Robinson later accuses of turning Catholic priests’ crimes into a “cottage industry” of law fees.

This space is ample and glossy, and the enormous windows and glass walls echo the false illusion of transparency provided by the smiling, seemingly forthcoming (but not entirely helpful) MacLeish.

In another sequence, McCarthy cuts from the Globe reporters enjoying a night out at crowded Fenway Park (but still talking about the Church story, because these men are never off the clock)…

…to a luxurious and secluded golf course, where Robby talks with a well-connected Church source. They and their caddies are the only people visible for hundreds of yards.

Later, Robby visits with the same source, attorney Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), at a catered Church banquet.

That shot follows directly from a scene set in a greasy spoon between Globe reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and crusading attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). Note the difference between the giant ballroom and the tiny diner, where Rezendes and Garabedian are squeezed into the smallest booth in the history of mankind:

There are more direct comparisons. Like the cold, barren office of Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber):

And the warm, wide open workspace of his opposite number at the Catholic Church, Cardinal Law (Len Cariou):

Of course, Baron’s shabby hovel is a palace compared to Garabedian’s office:

McCarthy’s muted visual palette is crucial to this back-and-forth. The world of the Church’s enablers is a seductive land of wealth and privilege. The world of the Globe is a stifling prison of cubicles and stale pizza. The limited camera movement and extensive close-ups inside the Boston Globe offices heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere, making the Church’s domain even more appealing. That juxtaposition helps viewers understand why reasonably decent people made such questionable decisions: Because those questionable decisions kept them in these wonderful spaces. Integrity pays for shit.

Integrity’s scary at times as well. When McCarthy’s camera does venture outside in Spotlight, it often settles into the narrow streets of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods, where meticulous framing puts churches into the backgrounds of almost every shot where Globe reporters pound the pavement looking for leads and tracking down sources.

Sometimes its presence is obvious, other times it’s almost invisible. But the church is always present, watching and listening. No one in Spotlight is ever intimidated with any overt threats of violence or harm. But the possibility looms somewhere in the background no matter where the Globe staff goes.

McCarthy’s careful juxtapositions reach their climax with a different sort of looming background menace; a billboard for AOL that overlooks the Boston Globe parking lot.

This shot is doubly suggestive. When Marty Baron parks his tan sedan and heads inside (Cardinal Law drives an Infiniti, by the way), he discovers that the World Trade Center has been attacked; it is the morning of September 11, 2001. That context retroactively associates AOL with 9/11, and compares the destruction with the internet’s ruinous impact on old-fashioned journalism. It’s not the most subtle metaphor in film history, but it is an effective one anyway. (The same goes for the montage near the end of the movie that lays “Silent Night” atop the Globe’s final preparations to finally expose the Church’s code of silence.)

Spotlight and McCarthy do have a few prominent defenders; Mark Harris recently praised the film’s “simple, perfect” direction on Slate, singling out the image of Marty Baron still in his office on the weekend as one that stayed with him “as much as any shot from any movie this year.” My personal favorite is the long take that starts in close-up on a Spotlight office phone and then slowly zooms out to reveal the whole room and the entire team, listening intently, mirroring the expanding scope of their investigation as Richard Jenkins’ Richard Sipe reveals that his research suggests as many as 90 priests have likely molested children in the Boston area.

That moment says so much with so little, and it doesn’t draw attention to itself. In this scene and many others, McCarthy’s craft is ingenious but almost invisible. Still, it is there, waiting, like so many secrets in our world, for someone with the patience and determination to discover them.

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