The Best Picture Project — Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight (film) poster.jpgDirected by Tom McCarthy

Written By Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and Bryan d’Arcy James

In 1976, All The President’s Men competed for Best Picture with Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory and of that group, Bound For Glory is the one I’d argue isn’t a suitable Best Picture winner.  Sure, it’s got the period look, and seems to capture the flavor of the time and place, but ultimately it’s missing that indefinable something a Best Picture winner should have.

The other three films thought – All The President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver – are completely timeless and any of the three could have, and should have, won.  No surprise, they all lost to the flagship of the Rocky franchise, a film some people consider a ‘classic’, but is one I just don’t get.[1]

Well, while All The President’s Men didn’t win, but at least it can take solace in the fact that 40 years after it’s loss, it’s most direct offspring, Spotlight, scooped the big prize.

What It’s About

Prodded by a new editor, the crack investigative unit of the Boston Globe begins a hard look at the allegations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church.  Rather than focus the blame on individual priests, though, the Globe works to expose the systemic failures of the Church that aided and abetted the abusers. Buoyed by great performances top-to-bottom – Live Schreiber is the real hero for me in a part that could easily have been described as ‘beside the point’ – Spotlight is quietly devastating, which is the best kind of devastation.

All the president's men.jpgFather and Son

If there’s any doubt All The President’s Men and Spotlight share the same blood, consider—

  • both are about the power of journalism to expose corrupt institutions;
  • both show the value of stick-to-it-tiveness;
  • both are prime examples of competency porn; and,
  • both showcase a multitude of different actors in roles that don’t need to be overly-showy to be good.

Perhaps the biggest trait they share is that both are simply stories about people who are good at their jobs, doing their jobs well.

But, while the films share some blood, in some ways Spotlight is the Donald Trump of the two movies.  I don’t mean it’s DJ in that it’s an offensive blowhard.  No, I mean it’s DJ in that it inherited its fortune from its father and basically coasted on that largesse into national prominence without actually doing anything of his own.  And just like Donald Trump, who was a lesser-businessman to his old man, Spotlight is a lesser film to All The President’s Men [2].  Count ‘em—

  • All The President’s Men is better-written,
  • better constructed, and,
  • full of many more memorable moments.

But, because it didn’t win Best Picture meant Spotlight could, and gave other films of it’s like a shot at the top prize, too.[3]

Now, don’t misunderstand – I don’t say any of this to make light of Spotlight, or diminish its message or accomplishments.  After all, Spotlight is a film that should not be diminished or made light of.  Interesting story – in the theater my wife and I saw it in, one woman kept chuckling throughout the movie at weirdly inappropriate times.  Maybe she laughed from discomfort, because the film is discomforting, and laughter is a common way people deal with discomfort.  Whatever the reason for the laughter, another woman in the theater was so offended by the chuckling that when the lights came up, she marched over and dressed the woman down for it.  The point here?  Spotlight is not a film and subject that I, or anyone, should take lightly.

But, just because it is not to be taken lightly, doesn’t mean it’s the better film.

What else made All The President’s Men a better film?  In a word – reality.

When you come down to it, All The President’s Men is inherently a more satisfying film because, in real life, the bad guys got punished and the good guys won.  Sure, the film ends on a down part of the story but, ultimately, we know nobody got away with it.  Nixon resigned, people were jailed, disgrace was heaped all around, etc.  But while Spotlight takes on a more devastating story, with far worse implications and damage done than a President covering up a botched break-in, because it’s victory is in exposing, as opposed to punishing, it will always be less-satisfying.  Especially when you know that at the end, the bad guys basically get away and the ruined lives stay ruined.

At the end of the day, though, arguing that Spotlight is lesser than All the President’s Men isn’t fair – they were not nominated against one another, so for our purposes it’s silly to compare them.  No, Spotlight should be compared with it’s co-nominees – The Revenant, The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road, Brooklyn, Room, Bridge of Spies, and The Martian.

The Big Short teaser poster.jpgShould It Have Won?  Or, Apple to Oranges.

For me, three nominated films seemed legitimate Best Picture contenders: Spotlight, The Big Short and The Martian.  All excited me in different ways, all were fairly well-made, and all took varying risks that paid off.

And if those three were neck-and-neck, Brooklyn was only a smidge behind as truly the riskiest nominee.  After all, it tells a sweet and subdued story about a girl from Ireland making her way in the world who ultimately makes the practical, pragmatic decision as opposed to some sort of romanticized nonsense.  The main character is plucky, yet confused, and doesn’t seem to need a man to complete her – certainly, in film terms, she’s the riskiest character of all.  Still, while I did not love Brooklyn, it was nice and gentle and genuinely made me happy.

Of the rest, Bridge of Spies was too milquetoast.  Yes, the opening sequence of the feds chasing Abel throughout the city, etc., were genuinely exciting, but after that, it settles into what I’ll call ‘standard’ mode.  It turns the heat to medium low and leaves it there.

Mad Max: Fury Road was critically beloved and was dubbed by some as the second coming of something.  For me, though, it was only okay.  I get that it’s visually exciting, and there’s something to say for the uniqueness of the female heroine, but it really didn’t engage me the way it did others.  Sure, I could probably work up a good sweat to it on an elliptical machine – it seems like perfect workout viewing – but beyond that it paled compared to its shaggier, hungrier, meaner predecessor, the original Mad Max.

As I have yet to see Room, I cannot comment on it.  And not seeing Room was done on purpose – even before the Awards were announced, I’d decided Room would be the 2015 entry in The Also Ran’s Project and thank goodness it did not win and spoil that plan.

Honestly, the one film I dreaded winning Best Picture was The Revenant.  The movie was too long, had too many unnecessary plot threads, did not engage me on an emotional level and was self-indulgent to the point of ludicrousness.  Most damning of all, I just didn’t care about the hero’s journey and couldn’t wait for it to finally grind to an end.

The weird thing, though, is while The Revenant got so much wrong, it also got so much right—

  • Leo was good and did exactly what this story called for. Unfortunately, this story called for the single most repetitive and one-note performance in the history of one-note performances.  And that one-noteness is not redeemed by the film having been hard to make.  You know what’s hard?  Comedy is hard.  You know what’s hard?  Robert De Niro seeming friendly and approachable on a chat-show couch.  You know what’s hard?  Law school.  You know what’s not?  Coming across as cold and miserable on screen when you’re shooting in the cold and mud.  Does that make his performance bad?    But hard doesn’t necessarily mean good, either.
  • Tom Hardy. The curious thing about the film is that while Leo got the accolades, Hardy got short-shrift.  Yet, he shot the same movie as Leo.  He was subjected to the same conditions.  And because his performance actually had dialog and complexity – he didn’t just get to grunt as a form of communication – you could argue he actually had the tougher  Why did one of these guys get an Oscar and the other didn’t?  I’ll never know.
  • The cinematography was phenomenal – there’s no other word for it.
  • The below-the-line parts of the movie were outstanding and the directing of the individual scenes tended toward energetic, but…

But the end result was blah.  Individual parts were good, even glorious, but the whole was just too much.  There was too much mud, too much grunting, too much suffering, too much symbolism, too much—

It was too much.

SteveJobsposter.jpgBut…Was It Really Best?

Up until Steve Jobs came out, I was all in on Ex Machina.  When I say this, I don’t mean it hyperbolically, but I genuinely believe that in years to come Ex Machina will be spoken of in the same breath as the greatest sci-fi of all time.  2001: A Space OdysseyBlade RunnerEx Machina.  That film literally blows me away with the ideas and narrative and the performances – especially Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.  Honestly, it’s a shame Vikander won an Oscar for The Danish Girl, because her Eva in Ex Machina is the true tour de force.  The same can be said for Isaac, who found himself unjustly overlooked for the controlled menace and unease he brings to his part.  How that guy didn’t go home with his own Oscar is baffling.

If there are any areas of the film I’d knock, it’s Domnhall Gleason as Caleb.  First of all, Caleb is an American, but Gleason’s American accent is shit – when it was clear Gleason couldn’t hack the accent, why didn’t somebody make the decision to just let his character be from the UK so Gleason use his original accent?  Second, Caleb not leaving himself a workaround to the fate which ultimately traps him is a nagging plot hole I can’t overlook and refuse to explain away as hubris on Caleb’s part.

That being said, while Ex Machina will be one of those genre-revolutionary films, Steve Jobs was the movie that hit me on a gut level.  Yes, I know some have complained about the tidiness of the structure and the coldness of the man, but it’s those same qualities that stuck with me – you needed his coldness to make his evolution that much more powerful.  And as for structure and factual liberties, I’m in the Herzog camp – I care about the ecstatic truth far more than the literal truth.  And in this movie, the ecstatic truth moved me.  Literally.  I saw it twice in the theaters, read the screenplay in PDF form[4], then got the blu-ray and watched it twice again inside a week.  Yes, the filmmaking and the story are great in the way they just grab hold and propel you forward – you can’t just overlook a great script and a well-made film – but those aren’t what did it for me.  Rather, it was the relationship between Steve and his father, Steve and his father figure, and Steve and his daughter, that genuinely affected me.  Does it bother me that the film takes liberties?  No, because I didn’t come for a documentary and am glad I didn’t get one.

Everything I do Turns Gold

Over the years of doing this project I’ve noted times when an actor managed to get himself in two Best Picture Winner’s in a row. Eric Liddell was in Chariots of Fire and Gandhi.  Walter Pidgeon was in How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver.  Guy Pearce was in The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech.  Well, Spotlight’s anointment added another name to the list:  Michael Keaton.  Birdman 2014 and Spotlight 2015.  With his movie about Ray Kroc scheduled to come out later this year, will we see the first three-time member?

See the rest of theThe Best Picture Project here.

Also, be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

[1] Notwithstanding the fact it spawned all those terrible sequels.

[2] Please do not believe I support Donald Trump in any way – I do not.  I only use him here to labor an analogy.

[3] I kind of think The Martian owes its Best Picture nom to All The President’s Men as well – all three are fine examples of competency porn.  No reason not to think of The Big Short in the same way.

[4] Sorkin’s screenplay, FYI, is one that has to be read.

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