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21 January 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:57pm

Films like Spotlight imply absolution for their viewers – but come up short

Spotlight (15) and The Big Short (15) take on moral issues, but leave one more angry at sub-prime cinema than their subject matter.

By Ryan Gilbey

Films with a factual basis have a fast-track to the Oscars: half of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees fall into that category, including Spotlight (15), which concerns an investigation by journalists into sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and The Big Short (15), about the men who predicted the financial crisis. In both, there is an element of implied absolution for the viewer. If we sympathise with the heroes of Spotlight, we have delivered some indefinable blow to institutional child abuse, just as anyone who paid to see Twelve Years a Slave (an earlier Best Picture winner) was also purchasing an invisible “I Hate Racism” badge. If we support The Big Short, we have done our bit to avert the next economic collapse, or at least to ensure we can discuss it with authority when it comes. But good intentions are not always synonymous with great film-making.

Tom McCarthy, the director of Spotlight, has a good track record in subtle drama (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and he works lovingly here with his actors. Michael Keaton plays Walter Robinson, the editor leading the dedicated “Spotlight” team on the Boston Globe which follows up allegations into local priests’ actions dating back to the 1970s. Working with him are Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo: perky and twitchy) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams: placatory and uncomplicated). Although the film is set in this century, it fetishises old-school reporting: there are adoring shots of cuttings files and trolleys of folders being steered through basement archives.

The camerawork alternates between static mid-shots and West Wing-style walk-and-talks. For special moments of revelation, McCarthy favours a close-up that slowly retreats to reveal more people in the room – to show, in effect, the bigger picture. One vital discovery is delivered in voice-over while a taxi navigates the streets of suburban Boston in the powdery dusk. That shot insists on locating the abuse in the neighbourhood rather than making it an abstract idea.

There isn’t much the movie can do, though, to shake up the conventions of procedural drama. We know what to expect: persistent reporters stymied by duplicitous officials; the moment when the case seems about to collapse; the discovery that the rot goes all the way up. Those reassuring comforts of the form help nullify any shocks. Moments that should be difficult to watch are alleviated by cautious decisions. When McCarthy switches back and forth between two victims giving their testimonies, the cross-cutting kills off any tension. (One man remembering his ordeal without cutaways might have made us squirm – as we should.) The title suggests a beam of illumination but Spotlight has the dimmer switch turned low.

The Big Short also focuses on renegades trying to warn the world of a crime being committed under cover of authority, only to be doubted by those in power. There is the barefoot executive Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the Wall Street whizz-kid Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), the live-wire hedge funder Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and the reformed banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Having cottoned on to the sub-prime mortgage racket, they position themselves to make small fortunes from betting against the housing market while everyone else is too bored or confused by the numbers to spot the impending catastrophe.

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For a while, the likelihood that the audience will glaze over becomes the subject of the film. The director, Adam McKay (known for goofy comedies such as the Anchorman films), has his characters address us directly, even wheeling on celebrity pals (Selena Gomez, the chef Anthony Bourdain) to make the facts and figures palatable. He tries literally to sex up the material with shots of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath from The Wolf of Wall Street (one of several harmful references to that superior film) and close-ups of naked strippers, which suggests his target audience is made up of easily distracted heterosexual men.

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Incredibly, that’s not the worst thing about The Big Short. With its scattershot, montage-heavy structure, it resembles a zany instructional video. The knowing, boisterous humour comes off as irredeemably smug and the A-list cast can’t disguise the fact that they are portraying points of view, rather than characters. As with Spotlight, the failings in the film-making mostly eclipse the subject matter. You come out of these films fuming not at the crimes of the Catholic Church or the banks, but at the shortcomings of sub-prime cinema. 

This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war