- by Jeff Beck
Spotlight: Well-Intentioned, but Not Very Compelling (Blu-ray)
Investigative journalism has been a fascinating subgenre for film for several decades. Who could ever forget watching Woodward and Bernstein investigate the Watergate incident in “All the President’s Men” or Edward R. Murrow and his team tackling Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt in “Good Night, and Good Luck” or a producer for “60 Minutes” trying to go up against a tobacco company in “The Insider?” Each of these great films had us hanging on every step of the way as their respective teams took on a big, important story that they felt needed to be told. Now Tom McCarthy seeks to join their ranks with his latest film, “Spotlight,” which tackles a completely different kind of story.
The film begins in 2001 with The Boston Globe hiring a new editor by the name of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). After reading an article that claims that the archbishop of Boston knew about a priest that was sexually abusing children, and did nothing to stop it, he decides to put the paper’s investigative team (known as “Spotlight”) on the case. The team consists of the leader, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), and a small group of other reporters, including Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). As they dig deeper into the case, they begin to find more and more instances of cover-ups. This eventually leads to a long list of priests that were/are involved and a much bigger story than they originally thought.
Taking a page from the films previously mentioned, McCarthy’s “Spotlight” tackles a big, true, and above all, important story that really does deserve to be told. He and co-writer Josh Singer do an admirable job of telling the events as they supposedly happened, giving us the key players and how they went about cracking this devastating case, from locating victims who were willing to speak out to uncovering sealed documents that prove vital to their investigation. However, no matter how close to the truth the filmmakers were able to get the story, that’s not going to help fix the film’s main issue: the fact that it’s just not that compelling.
Thinking back on films like “All the President’s Men,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “The Insider,” the thing that most people are likely to remember is that they were gripping, causing you to be glued to the screen to see what was going to happen next, and this was despite the fact that most already knew the outcome (they are true stories after all). “Spotlight” does tell an important story, but for its two-hour runtime, the film simply never comes to life, feeling more like a collection of perfunctory actions that have characters going from one place to another, delivering dialogue, and then finally putting the story together.
It’s the kind of film where you just never feel like the stakes are all that high, when they most certainly were. True, they’re not going up against politicians or “big tobacco,” but the only real danger felt throughout “Spotlight” is in the possibility of them not being able to find sources for the story, with the most tension arising from Rezendes trying to obtain documents pertaining to the case. As a result, the film is a bit of a slog as you wait for it to come to its inevitable conclusion, another one we already know due to it having actually happened, but in this case, the lack of a compelling narrative makes it take a much longer time to get there.
That being said, the film’s one great element that keeps it from being a bigger disappointment is the exceptional ensemble that was put together to tell this story. The outstanding cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci. Each one of them gives a memorable performance that shows exactly why the film took home the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Cast in a Motion Picture. Even though the film does drag for considerable amounts of time, they all do their part to make sure that there’s at least one thing the film will be remembered for.
Tom McCarthy may have had good intentions in bringing this important story to the big screen, but unfortunately, unlike its fellow investigative journalism films, it just doesn’t make for a particularly captivating tale. It’s certainly not a bad film by any means, and it’s definitely a story that’s worth being told, but as we can see here, a two-hour dramatization of the events was probably not the best route to go, for all it does is leave us with a film that wants to say something important, but just doesn’t quite know how to do it.
“Spotlight” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of mostly good quality. There is a very slight grain to the image, but just like other films with this same issue, it’s not something that hinders viewing in the least. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, giving you all of the dialogue and Howard Shore’s score in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given above-average treatment, providing you with a fine experience.
Uncovering the Truth: A Spotlight Team Roundtable (6 Minutes): A fascinating discussion of the case with the actual Spotlight team. What’s particularly interesting here is that it basically proves that having the real journalists discuss the story is more compelling than the dramatized film.
Spotlight: A Look Inside (2 Minutes) and The State of Journalism (3 Minutes): Two very brief featurettes that feature snippets of interviews with the cast and crew. Unfortunately, neither of them goes into any depth, so both are easily skippable.
Despite having an important story to tell, and a top-notch cast to tell it with, “Spotlight” is a film that never comes to life thanks to a less-than-compelling narrative that turns the film into a bit of a slog to get through. What we’re left with is a film that was well-intentioned, but just wasn’t the right way to tell this story. In retrospect, a documentary would more than likely be the perfect delivery for this tale, telling the story through interviews with the people who were actually involved, for a two-hour dramatic reenactment simply doesn’t do it the justice it deserves.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates.