Dear Tom McCarthy,
Sometimes life can correct art. In season five of The Wire you played an investigative reporter who spun stories out of whole cloth just to boost your signal in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun. Now, seven years later, you co-write and direct a film about the investigative arm of the Boston Globe (dubbed Spotlight) that literally changed the world. Because of the series of stories that the Globe published in the early 2000’s—stories that detail decades of sexual abuse by priests as well as the Catholic Church’s implication in a massive cover up—millions of people would come to reassess their relationship with the church, as well as with the people who are its ostensible guardians.
Spotlight is a reversion to a kind of filmmaking that has often been declared dead and buried by countless (and as it turns out, alarmist) think pieces. Thoughtful and nuanced, the story spools out effortlessly. The performances are low key and far less heightened than most films that are trumpeted as Oscar bait. This is a true ensemble piece with strong turns from Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel MacAdams and Liev Schreiber—not to mention stellar work from Stanley Tucci in a small, but vital, performance.
The filmmaking itself is invisible—a return to the kind of aesthetic that made films like All The Presidents Men or even The French Connection feel like they were one degree away from real. In the same way that well written dialogue goes unnoted, the audience is completely unaware of the architecture of the work and is left to simply absorb the narrative. Much like last year’s A Most Violent Year or even Timbuktu, Spotlight is a medium budget film that puts lie to the idea that there is no such thing as adult entertainment that doesn’t end with the suffix hub.
It is a subtle pleasure to watch something so carefully modulated. There are very few moments of high drama. Instead we all get to see how the sausage is made—the whole movie gives itself over to the fascinating process of how a story so monumental is found in nooks and crannies, detail by detail—by professionals who are dedicated to their craft. And the resulting piece of art is completely riveting.
Spotlight is a clear example of how film can parse fraught and incendiary themes with intelligence and sensitivity. You managed a balance between blunt truths and an understanding that these are real people, not just mannequins you rearrange to create narrative flourishes. Nor is Spotlight an instrument of advocacy other than demonstrating the value of an increasingly rare sort of journalistic enterprise. Everyone populating the landscape you helped create were characters with complicated, and often conflicted, motivations and desires.
Station Agent, a film of yours I happened across years ago, is an intimate, small-scale funny/sad story about a group of socially ill-equipped humans finding community with one another—and in so many ways is a necessarily different work than Spotlight. But the two films do share one commonality: a fundamental compassion about the fragility at the core of the human condition. With Spotlight you managed to create something that simultaneously honors that fragility and yet never launders the ugly truths at the core of the story. That kind of tightrope walk is a rare pleasure to watch.