Spotlight on the Social Issue Drama: David Gordon Green and Thomas McCarthy take their shots

When David Gordon Green broke away from his indie roots to make the mainstream stoner comedy Pineapple Express, followed by the idiosyncratic (and less financially successful) but still mainstream Your Highness and The Sitter, much was made of this unexpected career left turn. Green has since swung back into indie territory with a trio of lower-key dramas (Prince Avalanche; Joe; Manglehorn), albeit with bigger stars than anyone who appeared in All the Real Girls or Snow Angels, and his fluid, prolific toggling between genres makes clear both his talent and his personal stamp. Though not everyone recognized it, his loopy broad comedies are not so far removed from his loopy, less broad character studies or Malick-ish dreamscapes; the scrappy chase narrative of Undertow shares a certain kinship with Pineapple Express, and the aimlessness of Pacino’s Manglehorn and Jonah Hill’s feckless babysitter have a certain, subtle rhyme scheme.

It turns out, if you really want David Gordon Green to stretch, assign him to do a George Clooney/Grant Heslov/Participant Media social-issue drama. Producing partners Clooney and Heslov aren’t formally involved with Participant, but they have a taste for the kinds of high-minded material the company seeks out; though Participant has worked on plenty of films, some of their most notable have won Clooney an acting Oscar (Syriana), announced his seriousness as a writer/director (Good Night, and Good Luck), and supported Clooney’s frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!; Contagion). Now Participant has produced Our Brand Is Crisis, a fiction-film version of the same-named documentary, once earmarked for a Clooney directorial project. At some point, Clooney (who still produced with Heslov) passed the project to Green, having gained a star in Sandra Bullock, who signed on after screenwriter Peter Straughan (who also worked on the non-Participant but Participant-ish The Men Who Stare at Goats, co-starring Clooney) agreed to flip the protagonist’s gender to female.

Straughan has written other movies, better movies than The Men Who Stare at Goats, but that’s the unfortunately apt comparison point here. Brand follows Bullock’s campaign strategist as she travels to Bolivia to tinker in their presidential elections, pitted against an old rival played by Billy Bob Thornton. It’s a political dirty-tricks movie with a heart, and Bullock’s on-screen team is aces: Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan. But as good as Green has been with actors, his terrific supporting cast doesn’t get to do much apart from the stray moments where his offhand comic timing seeps into the procedure via overlapping, half-overheard dialogue that may not have been improvised, but certainly sounds it. A night of debauched celebration, too, has Green’s trademark ramshackle beauty, and between his dance moves and half-punchlines, the movie begs for a little more focus on Scoot McNairy’s character, the funniest and most doofus-y of the bunch. The movie also happens across an interesting notion when it reveals Bullock’s character as manic-depressive, implying that this condition makes her almost well-suited to the vagaries of rocky, scrappy, committed political chicanery.
Our Brand is Crisis cast
But this aspect of her character doesn’t move to the fore, and for the most part, Green disappears into the Clooney/Heslov model of “smart” cynicism chased with hope for the future. It must be admitted, a decade or so on, that this style of filmmaking hasn’t really yielded much in the way of great movies. Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck has a certain exacting sharpness to it, but his best movie remains his weirdest and least disciplined: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, with the inimitable Sam Rockwell. Other Clooney/Heslov projects, and non-Clooney Participant productions like Fair Game, Promised Land, and The Fifth Estate, fail to translate their topical currency into the more electrical kind. They’re all well-acted and respectably shot nobility, movies that want to talk about world affairs with an old-Hollywood earnestness that can’t match the current speed of news, or satire. It’s not always fair, the way critics will turn up their noses at something like Our Brand Is Crisis for being insufficiently edgy or biting; to the film’s credit, this is a mainstream political drama released by a big studio on 2,000 screens (and punished for it at the box office), and calls to revolution don’t guarantee a great movie, either. Hiring Green was a potentially inspired idea; at its best (especially scenes between Bullock and Thornton), the movie hints at the way he could have turned the political more personal. Instead, he’s made his weakest film.

It’s a little bit of a shock that Spotlight, the journalism drama about the Boston Globe reporters who broke the Catholic sex abuse scandal over a decade ago, doesn’t bear the Participant logo (Anonymous Content is the production company here, and it also leans toward socially conscious dramas, though not exclusively). “Spotlight” is the name of the investigative reporting team, headed up by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). It’s very much an ensemble piece; there are some impassioned bullpen clashes, particularly involving Ruffalo’s tenacious but also less patient reporter, but terrific actors like Keaton and McAdams offer solid, reactive performances as they search for confirmations and track down leads, the scope of the church’s abuses and cover-ups increasing before their horrified eyes. Keaton does get one especially Keaton-y scene where he pleads for assistance from an old school friend, though fans of The Paper (e.g., me) hoping for a snappy return of his newsroom-ready rat-a-tat may be unreasonably disappointed.

Director Thomas McCarthy intercuts interviews as the team spreads out their investigation; even the movie’s montages are rich with procedural detail. It’s especially fascinating to see that the difficulties the reporters encounter aren’t always institutional – they receive a lot of brusque, angry, and impatient sorta-help from advocates and outside parties, too, along with the usual silences both shamed (victims) and shameful (the church). McCarthy, by the way, may have mounted the most impressive single-year director comeback in Hollywood history; his insane Adam Sandler indie The Cobbler just came out (and went out) back in the spring, and now here he is with a disciplined, tightly constructed and rapturously reviewed prestige picture.

Spotlight is enormously compelling, but it has the bad luck to recall several even-better movies: All the President’s Men and, more recently, David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac (also starring Ruffalo, there as a cop rather than a journalist). Zodiac wove its accumulated procedure into a dense, paranoid, sometimes terrifying tapestry of journalism, detective work, and amateur sleuthing. Spotlight looks a little wan by comparison, and not just because it doesn’t span as much time; it’s too grounded for rabbit-hole intoxication, and McCarthy doesn’t happen upon a single truly indelible image in the whole thing. The movie also, while not exactly worshipful of journalism, doesn’t say a lot about the larger world outside of journalism. There are hints of the medium’s last hurrah: an AOL billboard looms, as does a new boss (Liev Schreiber) who staffers fear will make further cuts – but, in a neat subversion of that dynamic, turns out to encourage the team. And there are some glimpses of Boston as a small town, something usually reserved for gangster pictures. All of this makes Spotlight one of the better recent films of its type. If McCarthy tends toward earnest squareness (some of the tense shout-offs are pretty boilerplate), recall that a more visionary filmmaker just made his least distinctive and most muffled film on a similar playing field. Spotlight makes for smart entertainment – surprisingly rare for a movie trying to cover the recent, relevant past.