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Delving into allegations of child abuse within the local Catholic Archdiocese, a tenacious team of Boston Globe reporters expose a decades-long cover-up that reaches the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal, and government establishments. (From Universal’s official synopsis)

 Spotlight
Journalism movies, especially the ones that overlap with conspiracy theory movies, come fitted with a formula every bit as particular as a slasher or a romantic comedy. The crossover subgenre dates back to (I believe) Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), but the gold standard, as far as formula is concerned, is probably Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). These films don’t usually break box office numbers or win loads of Oscars, but they attract great actors, garner awards buzz, score nominations, and get tongues wagging about real-world issues. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a textbook sampling of the best the blueprint has to offer, including a top-tier cast giving their best ‘every(wo)man’ performances, a tidily compressed version of the facts, and an elegantly unraveled knot of conspiracy. The key differences between the true story and the version presented in the film don’t dilute the serious implications of the situation and, even though the bulk of the dialogue is expositional by design, the discussions rarely sound forced. In other words, the requirements of the storytelling process rarely stifle the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Perhaps even more importantly, a person easily confused by ‘legalese,’ such as myself, can easily follow the trail the exposition lays out without being talked down to.

On the other hand, Spotlight also suffers from the typical problems associated with the genres, namely sickly morose nostalgia (there is a weepy subtext throughout the film that laments the loss of print media, implying that it is somehow tied to good investigative journalism), a slightly distracting surplus of celebrity cameos, and an unnecessary lack of levity. I assume that the filmmakers were afraid that comedy would somehow sully the seriousness of the material and, certainly, joking about molestation accusations would be tasteless, but the self-seriousness threatens to break the suspension of disbelief that the script otherwise avoids. The film’s tone isn’t oppressive or depressing, but it constantly feels like McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer are pulling their punches to ensure that their inflection is measured and that they aren’t treating this inflammatory subject in a sensationalistic manner. On the rare occasions that a character does crack a joke, it ends up feeling like a false impression of comedy. It’s an issue of balance that, if addressed, might have made Spotlight one of the best films of its kind.

 Spotlight
The formula of journalism/conspiracy movies often extends beyond its narrative structure to its imagery and tone. In most cases, the name of the game is simplification – limited locations, naturalistic lighting, non-intrusive camera movement, and editing, et cetera. There is a precedent of more thriller-infused movies, like Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), or films that overlap into cop movie territory, like David Fincher’s Zodiac (2005), but these are the exception. Even with the model in mind, McCarthy’s steadfast adherence to utilitarianism is a problem. Spotlight has plenty of drama, but it is a complete aesthetic bore. On the other hand, ‘aesthetic bore’ is also sort of McCarthy’s modis operandi. The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2007), and Win Win (2011) are all pragmatically-shot movies that focus on the impact of performance and natural locations over flashy cinematic techniques. I suppose that, again, I find myself more concerned with the lack of levity, considering McCarthy’s penchant for somber, sometimes ironic laughs in both The Station Agent and Win Win.

 Spotlight

Video


Spotlight was shot using Arri Alexa XT digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 1.85:1 video. McCarthy and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi use specific lenses to create a ‘filmic’ look during some scenes – the digital noise really does look like film grain at times (I had to check the specs twice) – but the basic image here is very clean and digitally graded. The only things that keep every frame from being crystal clear are the rare use of shallow focus (the whole movie feels like one big medium shot), the aforementioned upticks in digital noise, and the fact that almost every scene is artfully underlit. If this movie is to be believed, Boston is perpetually overcast and in vital need of replacement light bulbs. Otherwise, the edges tend to be tight, its textures complex, and shapes neatly separated. The colour timing is limited to brown/sepia locations and fluorescent blue locations. The brown/sepia locations tend to be darker and closer to monochromatic (or at least consistently warm), while the blue sets (mostly interiors) feature relatively natural skin tones and purple/red highlights, though everything is pretty muted. Black levels are a bit uneven and often absorb the background colours around them.

 Spotlight

Audio


Spotlight is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Subtlety and naturalism take precedence here and the heavily dialogue-based sound design very rarely engages the stereo and surround channels. Even the buzzy environmental ambience of the world around the dialogue, aside from some wind, traffic, and office noise, tends to come from the center speaker alone. Though minimalistic in terms of movement and frequency, the sound is tightly balanced and organic. Howard Shore’s score is appropriately melancholy, while matching the film’s emotional and visual tones with gentle, sad piano strokes. The piano is warm and nicely supported by the bassy synthesized underscore, which also helps to fill out the channels in place of sound effects.

 Spotlight

Extras


  • Uncovering the Truth: A Spotlight Team Roundtable (6:30, HD) – A far too short discussion with the real-life Boston Globe journalists depicted in the film. It’s a frustrating taste of what could’ve been a really good documentary supplement.
  • Spotlight: A Look Inside (2:30, HD) – A fluffy EPK that includes a bit of behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews.
  • The State of Journalism (3:10, HD) – A different, equally fluffy EPK that expresses sadness at the supposed lack of modern investigative journalism


 Spotlight

Overall


I admit that I’m usually skeptical of these types of prestige true story movies and am probably more critical of them than I need to be. But I also love a good conspiracy yarn and appreciate the mechanics of a journalism movie, so I’m not sure if I’m being too harsh or too lenient with Spotlight. In the end, it is an intriguing, magnificently-paced look at a controversial subject that doesn’t quite rise above the level of ‘very good.’ It will be interesting to see how it performs at the Oscars, because I’d favourably compare it to 2012’s more actiony Argo. This Blu-ray looks sharp and sounds fine, considering its lack of aggressive sound design, but has basically nothing to add in terms of extras.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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