Thursday, February 25, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Spotlight

The common campaign tactic "some movies make you feel" has been a staple of Oscar politics for some time now. When more cerebral films come up against broader crowd-pleasers, that extra emotional edge can make the difference. Other times however, it's a combination of smart writing and commercial entertainment that delivers the right stuff, as proven by our most recent Best Picture winners. It's a recipe for success that I certainly see in Thomas McCarthy's subtle, but powerful "Spotlight", a strong contender for the top honor come Oscar night.

"Spotlight" refers to the Spotlight team, a small group of dedicated reporters tasked with investigating major stories for The Boston Globe. Having reported on some of the biggest cases of their time, they were seasoned experts with the full support of their editorial staff. But nothing could have prepared them for their latest case, an investigation into a far-reaching sex abuse scandal in the hallowed institution of the Catholic Church. What started as one-off cases of child molestation by a few priests is gradually revealed to be a larger conspiracy designed to cover-up the shocking trend and protect the church's public image, at the expense of thousands of victims. But this skilled team of social justice warriors soon connect the dots, determined to end the corruption once and for all.

In a time when style often trumps substance, "Spotlight" feels almost like a relic of times gone by. When the film premiered at Venice last year, the most common comparison was to the nearly 40-year old film "All the President's Men", another straightforward drama about a high profile scandal. And indeed, both film share the same bare bones approach, gathering a talented ensemble to downplay their star personas in service of their roles as determined journalists simply doing their job and doing it well. In this instance, those roles belong to Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James, in addition to many other fine performers in bit parts. Picking an MVP among them is a futile effort, as the film is as much about the power of teamwork as it is about the outcome of the case and its heroes.

The film's biggest strength lies in this lack of triumphalism, valuing the work over the end result. In doing so, the filmmaking is perfectly attuned to highlighting the discipline and dedication required to produce credible, influential journalism. Even as the film involves a lot of document review and interviews, McCarthy smartly ensures that the action is never static, often actively tracking each character as they hunt down their next piece of evidence. Likewise, the understated score acts as a ticking clock in the background, reminding you of the urgency of this crisis.

There were numerous other aspects I could list to show how Tom McCarthy has delivered a strong piece of cinema in "Spotlight", particularly when it comes to the Oscar-nominated screenplay. And likely there are even more to found as the film reveals even more depth and detail on repeat viewings. But in the spirit of the film's humble tone and filmmaking style, I'll simply say "good job". This film is deserving of all the acclaim and is one of 2015's must-see films.

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