I used to have the best picture Oscar winners memorized from 1989, the year I first got to watch the ceremony all the way through (as you can guess, I was a VERY cool kid). I don’t pay nearly as much attention to them as I used to, but it has been impossible to ignore the decoupling of best director and best picture lately.
A friend of mine recently told me he felt The Revenant was more a directorial triumph than a great movie (he’s an actual producer, so I tend to take him at his word). After seeing Spotlight, I feel the opposite may be true as well.
To be clear, there’s a lot to like about Spotlight. There’s not a bad performance in it, but its ensemble really shines (shout out to Michael Keaton for the least fake sounding Boston accent in a recent film). Its big speech lands well and even its smaller moments ring true. Liev Schrieber’s reaction to his Jewish character being given the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a gift and the main ensemble’s non-verbal work – all raised eyebrows and quick glances – during an important speakerphone conversation are communicate so much about the characters and the plot so effortlessly. Director Tom McCarthy started as an actor (ironically, he played an unscrupulous journalist on season five of The Wire) and it’s clear he knows how to get great performances out of every cast member.
I’ll digress a little here and mention one detail that I found very distracting. Spotlight has an R rating, and there are multiple uses of “fuck” throughout. But several actors, Mark Ruffalo most obviously, have dialogue peppered with “freaking” and “fricking” for no apparent reason. (The only reason for him not to swear is that the real person whom he’s playing didn’t swear, but I can’t find anything that backs up that theory.) At the very least, it’s hard to take his big speech – which I otherwise found very moving – seriously when he says “We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest, or a cardinal, or a freaking pope!” I can’t help but think of The Simpsons: “There’s no need for profanity, Fallout Boy.”
McCarthy is slightly less capable when it comes to his camera movement and blocking. In the DGA’s podcast “The Director’s Cut,” he states that he wanted the camera stationary in order to give the film a procedural feel. (He does say that his DP, Masanobu Takayanagi, did some handheld work in the first half of the film but was so steady that it’s hard to tell – he’s right, as I totally missed it. There is a nice handheld later as we follow a reporter for a panicked run through his neighborhood.) This stationary camera work isn’t bad, it’s just a little boring. Likewise his ensemble work, which mainly involves the actors doing a variation on the Sorkin walk-and-talk or sitting around the office, the latter almost entirely done in singles. It just feels like there are some missed opportunities for more interesting camera movements or blocking.
That said, I’m glad McCarthy chose more restraint rather than less, as two other scenes show he can be quite ham-fisted. Juxtaposing a children’s choir singing “Silent Night” with reporters discovering abuse is a little too on the nose. Similarly, it’s quite a coincidence that a reporter’s cab just happens to pass by the film’s first abuse victim as he plays with his son at a park as said reporter reads aloud the most damning evidence against the church.
Despite these missteps, Spotlight remains a powerful film. But I wonder what a more experienced director might have done with it. Spielberg would have had better camera work and blocking, but it may have been too maudlin. Fincher would have had a similarly clinical approach, but his camera work may have been too clever by half. Regardless, even though I haven’t seen The Revenant (yet), McCarthy didn’t earn the Oscar for best director.