Spotlight (2016)

★★★★★

Spotlight PosterDirector: Tom McCarthy

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 29th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber

At the inception of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, The Boston Globe newspaper is in the process of appointing its new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Despite this change, there remains a prevailing emphasis on ensuring the retention of local flavour. More than that actually; in upholding a local backbone prompted by the paper’s titular investigative team and its head man, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). The aforementioned Baron, blunt yet adept, arrives without any notion of hedonistic aplomb, a trait that reflects McCarthy’s exceptional outing as a whole.

Sometimes the film that resonates most is the one draped in assured, quality simplicity. Though some might disagree with the loftiness of my ranking, such simplicity is what endeared me so much to Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. And it’s a similar simple touch that paves the path for Spotlight, a film so rich and so thrilling. McCarthy directs with a stillness, allowing his actors to act and their words to burn into the audience’s psyche without distraction. This trust affords the Spotlight team — Baron, Robby, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradley Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all real life journalists who, at the turn of the millennium, took the Catholic Church to task over child abuse allegations — a platform to build their case.

Often, the camera diverts our attention towards battered notepads and scribbling hands, distinguishing the individual personalities within the team: tougher to read, Rezendes jots down notes underneath a table while interviewing a victim whereas Pfeiffer writes in plain view, her inclinations clearer and her projection softer. The former is a bundle of journalistic energy, constantly on the move and posing point-counterpoints. Rezendes is immensely dedicated to his craft — they all are, refreshingly — but perhaps more so to aiding the course of justice. He and Robby discuss the need for leisure time and Robby points out Rezendes’ only leisure time is his daily jog to work.

These reporters are studious, careful. They take their time to iron every crease, collating date from victims, legal papers and even Globe archives. It’s true investigative journalism executed with thoroughness, so much so that we feel drawn into the process. The tone is almost anti-Sorkin: there’s an air of justifiable caution on display here that Sorkin’s TV journalism jaunt The Newsroom bypassed in favour of addictive urgency. Both methods work, but the slower approach suits Spotlight’s sensitive subject matter far more (it also implores you to listen, therefore stretches of dialogue are easier to follow than those penned by Sorkin).

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ground such a grand story in local truths — the religious corruption infects a familiar neighbourhood. In any other situation this sort of coincidence might feel contrived, but not here where the sheer breadth of wrongdoing is so painstakingly relayed. Locality doesn’t immunise the team from significant global events; it’s 2001 therefore 9/11 is unavoidable, especially since journalism is our vantage point, and the attack drives all resources away from the child abuse scandal. Gamesmanship between rival city papers further funds McCarthy’s realistic portrayal of the job. If those realities aren’t enough, the reporting process at least thrives on-screen. (Even the aesthetic fits the journalistic groove, tinged with a greyish palette that matches the occupational ambiguity. It feels like a newsroom; we even see a printing press in action.)

Much like The Big Short, which also follows a brand of unethical discovery, Spotlight pointedly plants its ballpoint on one side of the debate. “Knowledge is one thing. But faith, faith is another,” says Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), leader of the diocese, with more than a hint of guiltlessness. McCarthy and co. are not against Catholicism but rather the structural inadequacies of certain segments of the Church, and their evidence is inadmissible. The team announce their respective affiliations to the religion (very little), undermining accusations of bias and offering up a tiny slice of their otherwise unexplored personal lives. And that’s how it should be. After all, this is an investigation and investigations should, ideally, lack personality.

Forget stopping short at admonishing priests, lawyers are also targeted for their mistakes (Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup play immoral attorneys opposite Stanley Tucci’s more upstanding lawman). Nor does journalism itself receive a free pass. This is as much a celebration of the profession as anything else, but in order to celebrate there has to be a level of humility. We see political jousting both within the Globe offices and outwith, during which we learn of costly past mistakes. Ignorance is the main allegation and this honesty resonates, adding roundedness to these real life characters who are far from impervious to perfection.

Speaking of which, those in charge of casting ought to be acclaimed for amassing such terrific depth. Apart from a solitary outburst of pent-up rage from Rezendes, powerfully delivered by Ruffalo, the performances are universally restrained. They’re quietly indelible too: Schreiber displays an uncanny knack for convincing without extravagance while McAdams, nominated for an Oscar, bears a warmth free from condescension. Of everyone, Keaton is the one who oozes most occupational comfort (as he should, given he plays the group’s editor), his aura exceedingly knowledgeable.

For this to work, the Spotlight team have to purvey a sense of well-oiled camaraderie and they absolutely do. The same can be said for McCarthy’s film, though to speak of his work just in terms of proficiency would be demeaning. It is proficient; it’s also socially reflective and genuinely gripping. Holes are punched in great institutions with justification, but you won’t find any holes in the story. For all the right reasons, Spotlight may well make you fall in love with journalism.

Spotlight - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Open Road Films

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

★★

The Last Days on Mars PosterDirector: Ruairí Robinson

Release Date: September 19th, 2013 (UK); December 6th, 2013 (US limited)

Genre: Horror; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams

The Last Days on Mars begins with a fairly promising sequence that sees two characters attempt to navigate an approaching dust storm. They bat around bouts of small talk, clean-sounding due to the atmospheric vacuum, quickly establishing their roles in the process. The air is quite eerie, uncanny almost. For five minutes, Ruairí Robinson’s outing works. Unfortunately, for ninety minutes it doesn’t. This subtle, edgy poise rapidly loses out to a flimsy skeleton; plot, characters and decision-making all broken and seemingly unmendable. On the Sunshine scale, The Last Days on Mars drifts miles yonder of Event Horizon before landing worryingly close to Apollo 18. Eek.

Thirty years or so from now, a team of scientists stationed on Mars are less than a day away from extraction. The incoming Aurora spacecraft is set to shuttle the crew back to Earth, but not before Marko (Goran Kostić) can covertly investigate some odd bacteria that he has come across. His findings are extraordinary, indicating the primitive existence of some new life form. However the nature of said discovery proves to be horrifying, and subsequently puts the remainder of the team in immediate danger.

In translating to the big screen, sci-fi historically carries a fairly patchy record. One element that has consistently shone though, is how the genre permeates atmospherically. Vastness is vast, and filmmakers are essentially unlimited given the nature of space potential. The Last Days on Mars makes fine work of the opportunities on offer, parading a visual spectrum that is encapsulating for the most part, and an aura that meanders tactfully between normal and creepy. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan delivers more than any other, affording the piece its one true success story. It’s only fair to point out Max Richter’s occasionally disconcerting score too, his musical interludes apparently effective enough to land him recent gigs as part of The Leftovers and As Above, So Below.

Annoyingly, this eerie-cum-wondrous soundscape signals the end of all things positive. The film tries too hard to be a slasher when the setting is far better suited to a probing approach. For some reason director Robinson cannot wait to show off his monster, and as a result the reveal comes sooner than expected. Scare factor crumbling, we turn to chaotic, jerking camera movements surrounded by pitch black darkness, all fruitful cinematography gone. Slotted indiscreetly amongst the outpouring of brash-yet-monotonous horror are snippets of philosophical musings.

It is as if the filmmakers, having mismanaged or simply forgotten the science-fiction element of their piece, feel the best solution lies with invariably adding earthy monologues. (“Do you think any part of us survives after death?” says one character, the notion shot down in a flicker as the next creature attacks). At one point we float over into unintentionally hilarious territory as the group argue about existing and dying over a deceased corpse that is showing signs of life. Sci-fi should engage its audience by channelling smart reflections and themes with gravitas, but the faint attempts displayed here reek of laziness.

The cast, quite well known despite the small budget, haven’t a hope in the world. Or in any world. Liev Schreiber leads as the claustrophobic Vincent and is granted the most material to work with. Once we’ve given up hope in terms of trying to figure out why a person afraid of small spaces would select space travel as his profession — he refers to their shuttle as a “coffin” — we’re left with hardly any inkling as to who Vincent and the other crew members are. The human characters are so poorly mapped out that it’s a wonder all of the actors found the set. It becomes an eternal struggle to care about any of them, or their fates, simply because we don’t know anything about the group. Mission psychologist Robert is the first one to lose his mind. Tedious.

Clive Dawson’s screenplay isn’t much better. Aside from the lack of scares and occasional deep thoughts, the narrative trundles along without vigour and fuelled by coincidence. The entire set-up hinges on a chain reaction of monumental contrivances: having spent a whole six months on Mars the team just so happen to discover this evil bacteria hours before they jet off home and the only reason said bacteria makes it on board is because a petulant crew member decides to look up the location of an errant mate and subsequently finds him at the site of the bacterial breeding ground. It is ridiculous and unashamedly so.

Perhaps the most grating factor of the lot is the fact that The Last Days on Mars could have been fun hour and a half. It never shows any signs of restraint or wisdom, thus the film was never going to be a serious sci-fi jaunt. But there is room for some B movie silliness. Though the whole thing is ravaged by a disappointing and ineffective requisite to walk the line tonally, a few looser ends here and there would undoubtedly have induced waves of low end but high value madness. It would’ve been a welcome turn of events for most of the cast — including well-travelled names such as Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas — who are instead left to suffer through cringeworthy speeches and poorly written characters.

The Last Days on Mars has been done immensely better before. It’s not necessarily that this is a horrible film, because it isn’t. Robinson’s piece is certainly bereft of many working parts but I’ve seen much worse. The movie is unavoidably boring though, and lazy. It wallows. With the ingredients laid before us — brimming with promise — it should, at the very least, be shooting for the stars and missing. Yet, The Last Days on Mars relents from even aiming skywards.

The Last Days on Mars - Liev

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Magnet Releasing