Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.
Nate’s Grade: B+
After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The follow-up by Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director of the sparkling Station Agent, is an affecting indictment on our nation’s immigration policies that manages to say a lot of important things in small touches, ditching histrionic messages. Walter (Richard Jenkins, in a commanding and deeply empathetic performance) discovers a pair of illegal immigrant squatters living in his seldom-used New York City apartment. He strikes up an unlikely friendship that moves in subtle strokes that keeps the movie very character-based. The second half of the film revolves around Walter’s attempts to work within the system to free his new friend from detention. I could have spent more time with Walter and Tariq, the Syrian immigrant who teaches Walter how to play the African drum. The Visitor explores a man learning in his autumn years how to reconnect with people, and it has moments of astonishing emotional clarity. McCarthy is a filmmaker that can spin narrative gold from just about anything; The Station Agent had a hot dog vendor, a single mom, and a dwarf. The Visitor is further proof that McCarthy is an extremely talented man who knows how to target and tap the humanity of his unique characters. There are very few moments in this movie that feel false.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This is the most charming film of 2003, and Im not just saying this because I had an interview with one of its stars, Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek). Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man with dwarfism. With every step he takes every look he gives, you witness the years of torture hes been through with glares and comments. Hes shut himself away from people and travels to an isolated train station to live. There he meets two other oddballs, a live-wire hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a divorced mother (Patricia Clarkson). Together the three find a wonderful companionship and deep friendship. The moments showing the evolution of the relationship between the three are the films highlights. Its a film driven by characters but well-rounded and remarkable characters. Dinklage gives perhaps one of the coolest performances ever as the unforgettable Fin. Cannavale is hilarious as the loudmouth best friend that wants a human connection. Clarkson is equally impressive as yet another fragile mother (a similar role in the equally good Pieces of April). The writing and acting of The Station Agent are superb. Its an unforgettable slice of Americana brought together by three oddballs and their real friendship. Youll leave The Station Agent abuzz in good feelings. This is a film you tell your friends about afterwards. Theres likely no shot for a dwarf to be nominated for an Oscar in our prejudiced times but Dinklage is deserving. The Station Agent is everything you could want in an excellent independent movie. It tells a tale that would normally not get told. And this is one beauty of a tale.
Nate’s Grade: A