Spotlight is not a good film and the reason why is because Thomas McCarthy is not a good director. As with his previous films like Win Win and The Visitor, Spotlight embodies a sterile, utilitarian blandness that makes his films largely useless. Can anyone recall a single frame in any of those films that embodies McCarthy’s aesthetic? Is there anything formally interesting going on to complement McCarthy’s screenwriting penchant for edification? In a word: no.
The film details a Boston newspaper’s specialty news team’s attempts to uncover a child abuse scandal concealed by the Catholic Archdioceses. Set in the early aughts, Spotlight observes an industry in decline as Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the Boston Globe’s new outside-hire editor from Florida, looks to shake things up by getting back to what make journalism great: grassroots investigation and a thoroughly researched hook. He looks to Walter Robinson’s (Michael Keaton) coterie of investigators (the dynamic cast of Brian d'Arcy James, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo) where the quartet initially humor the prospects of a possible child molestation case, only to realize that it is but one example of a systematic cover-up.
Spotlight is theoretically a film about process. It’s perhaps this sense of investigation and research, as the Spotlight cadre fixate on one particular detail to trace it back to its core, that commentators have suggested bears a resemblance to films like Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and David Fincher’s Zodiac. But consider the dark corridors that compose so many tenuous sequences in Pakula’s film. Or Jake Gyleenhaal’s frenzied eyes as he pores over documents in an evidence room, without the benefit of pen and pad, in Zodiac. There’s a discernable degree of anxiety to be derived from these sequences, from the deliberate to manic editing patterns on display, to the depth and visual composition of an image. Yet consider what’s submitted through McCarthy’s bland visual rendition of research and investigation: montage sequences involving actors typing data into an Excel spreadsheet or knocking on doors, getting rejected at most every juncture. You could perhaps dispute that this is the film’s objective: to showcase research as a laborious and unstimulating exercise. But I don’t think that’s Spotlight’s intent, especially with the perpetual deployment of Howard Shore’s swelling and emotional score, which more or less aspires to get its audience to back its diligent and ever-persistent heroes.
If there are any two sequences to highlight how to direct actors and a scene and how not to direct actors and a scene, then consider a side-by-side comparison of Spotlight and Zodiac, in a moment that features Mark Ruffalo in both:
In Zodiac we’re at a bench near a government building. It’s the evening as Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) has requested a meeting with police investigator, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). The locale of their meeting is important, as it places Toschi in a bind and immediately begins the conversation by implying they have a short amount of time to go over the specifics of an investigation that Graysmith has no immediate connection to. Framing and editing are key in this short conversation. Graysmith discusses his discoveries with the Zodiac case, while acknowledging the obstacles in his way – Gyllenhaal is shot at a low angle, in focus, while the back of Toschi’s body occupies a portion of the frame. Cutting to Ruffalo, we find see him shot from a higher angle, illuminating district lights in the background, with one such light obstructed by his head. The Toschi character has heard all this before and, as such, stands on a higher ground then the Graysmith character. The conversation develops and Graysmith expounds on more discoveries, this time taking Toschi by surprise and this is reflected not just through the dialogue, but the framing itself: Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo are now shot at the same angle, occupying each other’s frames equally, and in humorous touch, the obstructed light fixture is now placed above Ruffalo’s head – a discovery has been made. Taking place over a 3-4 minute conversation, the specifics of dialogue, performance, editing, and framing are in complete harmony.
Then consider Spotlight: on a nondescript park bench in a flush of daylight are reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). This serves as a kind of revelation sequence in the same manner as the Zodiac scene, but without a sense of how editing and framing can manifest itself into something revealing. A medium shot of the two gives way to a close-up on Tucci’s character, who reveals an off-the-record anecdote that will allow Rezendes to make significant headway in his investigation, garnering him access to sealed documents. The moment is a significant one, as it’s when Rezendes and Garabedian put aside their differences and work together. Yet nothing in the editing or framing accentuates that detail, nor does the formal qualities of the film suggest beyond what McCarthy does throughout the film: establish a shot of his two characters talking, cut between them without any formal rhyme or strategy, and repeat. There’s even a lack of context or urgency to the production itself. Why are these characters talking here and now? Switch the locale to any setting and it makes no difference.
It may seem unfair to outright compare Spotlight to Zodiac, because, frankly, few films can compare. But the problems with Spotlight are of a specific kind of formal inelegance, the kind of inelegance that can’t be excused for economical, but rather irresponsible. Given the specificity and trauma of its victims, there’s a distinct lack of directorial engagement to Spotlight that disservices McCarthy’s crew, actors, and subject.