The Movie Club

In defense of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight direction.

Entry 17: In defense of Tom McCarthy’s simple, perfect Spotlight direction. 

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.

Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

Amy, Dan, Dana, David, four intelligent, likeable movie quarrelers:

First, please note that the above salutation is in strict word-by-word alphabetical order, in tribute to this magnificent labor of love and madness that a friend told me about this morning. I can’t stop watching The Wizard of Oz—excuse me, Of Oz The Wizard, an alphabetical re-edit of the entire movie from “a” to “zipper” that reminded me that somebody can always make you look at a film you’ve seen before from a fresh perspective. Which is what we’ve all tried to do this week. 

Dan, you asked me, the anti-franchise grouch, to write about Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie about which I find it impossible to be even a little grouchy. I loved every minute of George Miller’s roaringly modern, diesel-fueled, handcrafted, feminist-ish return to territory he conquered almost 40 years ago and then left lesser mortals to rip off. The only asterisk I’d slap on it is that I don’t think it’s an exception to the dreariness of franchises as much as it is a defiant screw-you to all the rules that make them dreary. Franchises, after all, are rated PG-13, not R, as this is—an R rating is thought to lock out too much of the audience (and in fact, the $375 million worldwide gross of Fury Road was one-quarter or less of what Furious 7, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have each taken in). Franchises aren’t supposed to wait 30 years between installments. Franchises are supposed to trade heavily on the mythology established by earlier film. (A Max newbie could walk into this one knowing nothing about the 1979-85 run and be none the poorer.) Franchises are supposed to star Robert Downey Jr. or Johnny Depp or the Rock, not Charlize Theron. Franchises are supposed to be carefully vetted by corporate overlords to comb out anything that feels alienating, under-explained, extraneous, or off-brand, not to be the single-minded outpouring of whatever is on the mind of one 70-year-old director. Franchises are supposed to use digital effects to slicken the ride with tedious profligacy, not as a last resort deployed only when practical effects aren’t possible. And franchises aren’t supposed to take the muscle-bound title character and make him subordinate to a woman. So I take this movie as a glorious one-off, and one of several pieces of proof (Creed, Straight Outta Compton, The Big Short) that studios still know how to let filmmakers make movies—that is, when making movies is their primary goal, not building an ancillary business or filling a release date.

Because Fury Road is such a visually dynamic piece of moviemaking, I want to pivot 540 degrees on a camera suspended atop a 30-foot pole to the direction of another of my favorite movies of 2015, Spotlight. I know some people think that Tom McCarthy’s direction is utilitarian; I couldn’t disagree more. His steady medium shots and groupings of men (mostly men) in conversation in offices, behind overcrammed desks, in restaurants, clubs, doorframes, and well-appointed sanctuaries are not the product of lack of visual imagination but of serious thought about how best to tell a story of journalistic process and the uneasy co-functioning of big urban institutions (church, paper, courthouse). The empty weekend office in the film’s final sequence, with Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron at work in the distant background, has stayed with me as much as any shot from any movie this year.

McCarthy’s direction both serves and deepens the superb script he co-wrote with Josh Singer, which is what direction is supposed to do. Speaking of which, let me use my last lungful of hot air to talk about a moviemaking skill that meant a lot to me this year: writing. I think screenwriting is still an undervalued and under-assessed art and craft, especially by us writers; I often see critics say a director did his best with mediocre material, but never that a director ruined an excellent script—because directors who do that tend, by the very nature of what they do, to make good writing look bad. Also, there’s a sense that writing isn’t really moviemaking, a ’60s–’70s auteurist holdover notion that a script is something past which a director has to battle to realize a vision. In that strain of cinephilia, directors speak the pure language of the camera; words are secondary and even obstructive. That, as a great writer probably once said somewhere, is a load. Words have been a part of movies almost since movies were movies—at least since 1909, when sound was still almost 20 years away but filmmakers looked to great plays they could adapt for the screen.

So from me, a final toast to some of the writing (besides Spotlight) I loved this year. The elegance of Phyllis Nagy’s Carol script in its representation of how women without a language to explain themselves find each other is, I would say, an actual improvement on the almost unimprovable Patricia Highsmith. I was wowed by The Big Short’s synthesis of anger, wit, and faith in an audience’s ability to keep up with the very material that other screenwriters would have thrown away, so bravo to Charles Randolph and Adam McKay. I’ve seen Brooklyn (by Nick Hornby, adapting Colm Toibin) and Room (by Emma Donoghue, from her own novel) each a few times now, and they seem richer to me with every viewing, partly because of the seemingly effortless economy with which their scripts can convey a mood shift, a conflict, a moment of decision or irresolution. Novelists have paragraphs to do that; it’s very hard to pull off when every second counts, so Hornby’s and Donoghue’s fluency in two different storytelling languages is especially impressive.

And I love the work that Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley did on Inside Out, a story as steeped in an understanding of the value of melancholy and the way we integrate loss into our lives as Anomalisa is in its way. (RIP, Bing Bong. I hope you know that you were loved, except by the many people who hated you.) I think this was subtle, moving, and imaginative storytelling, and David, I also know that I am absolutely not going to convince you of that. It’s folly to try to talk someone into loving a movie they hated. It’s even more folly, of course, trying to talk someone into hating a movie they loved. I hope nobody who spent the last few days reading us came here for that; I didn’t. I came with the hope that I could, for a few days, see movies through all of your eyes; thanks for letting me do that.

Several years ago, I interviewed a great screenwriter, Buck Henry, and he told me what he thought were the three most hackneyed words of dialogue that could end a movie. Thankfully, I’m not writing a screenplay, so I get to use them to pass this back to Dana for a final word. Dana …

Let’s go home.

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