The Sorcery Behind Cinema’s Ability to Evoke

Recently, I watched (and reviewed!) the journalism film, Truth, which retells the controversy surrounding a 2004 60 Minutes II story which called Bush’s service in the Air National Guard into question. I didn’t really take much away from the film besides frustration and disappointment, mostly because its protagonists are depicted as clear-cut heroes, crusading against the Bush administration in a quest for the Truth. This – despite the fact that Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and the team of reporters working under them – were proven to be decidedly unheroic in their investigative method. That approach toward the events Truth depicts is highly inauthentic. Moreover, it had me thinking of a different journalism film released in 2015 — one that is much better in every regard.

I’m referring, of course, to Spotlight, the film written and directed by Tom McCarthy, which won the Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture Oscars at the 88th Academy Awards this past Sunday.  Spotlight covers the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into allegations of systematic child sex abuse by priests and the subsequent cover-ups by high ranking Catholic Church officials. This was a landmark investigation — one that led to a high level of much needed scrutiny aimed at the Church.

spotlight oscar gathering

Image: Open Road Films

Part of what makes Spotlight so great is Tom McCarthy’s minimalist direction. The film is an ensemble that places emphasis on the many quality performances — Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams stand out as leads, but even the bit players are essential here — and McCarthy has the good sense to step back, allowing his talented cast to flourish. He lets the narrative unfold naturally, as momentum behind the Spotlight team’s infestation grows. This is not to say McCarthy’s direction is dispensable — just restrained.

There’s one scene in particular — and even more specifically: one shot — that illustrates McCarthy’s restrained sense of direction exceptionally. This scene is, perhaps, the film’s most evocative moment and that; which is saying a lot because this is a picture in which characters (based on real, living people, mind you) bare their souls to reporters, detailing the horrors inflicted upon them by the most trustworthy authority figures from their youth.

This moment I’m referring to is best described as magic. Not just the proverbial “movie magic” which generally points to special effects or any of the variety of tricks filmmakers use to lure audiences into their imaginary worlds. Fundamentally, movies are just illusions— shadows in Plato’s cave.

What results from the relatively ordinary process of making and exhibiting films, however, is pure alchemy. What else could it be? When a movie is really working — when the performances and the writing and the score and every other element of filmmaking comes together — the audience begins to feel the movie. What was once just a series of images projected in a particular order can penetrate the mind and transmute into a visceral, emotional experience. We know movies are not real — just representations of life — yet, we feel their effect as if they were.

That’s magic, plain and simple. But don’t tell Neil deGrasse Tyson I said all that about alchemy. I’m sure there’s some mental process that explains how the sights and sounds of a movie fire synapses in the brain which triggers something in the Limbic system and that’s how the movies make us feel. But I don’t care about that! When a film pierces the mental veil that tells us, “I’m only watching a movie; it’s not real,” drawing genuine emotion out of the viewer from words and pictures — that’s sorcery; I don’t need to understand the biological process behind it.

**At this point, if you haven’t seen Spotlight (which you should change quickly), spoilers to follow**

Back to Spotlight, a film that succeeds in conjuring up several of these magic moments. One, in particular, stands out in my mind as not only one of the best scenes in that film, but also as one of the most powerful cinematic moments in all of 2015. The scene in question arrives late in the film, after the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team publishes their first expose on the Church’s sex abuse scandal.  Two of the reporters leading Spotlight’s investigation, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), decide they should go into the newsroom the next day — previously, they opened a direct tip line to help aid their follow-up stories. It’s a weekend, so they expect the office to be vacant, but when they walk in, the entire floor seems to be blanketed by an eerie quiet.

The front desk receptionist tells Mike and Sasha that everyone’s in the Spotlight back office. The two reporters look at each other with surprise before slowly walking toward the room. As they approach, they begin to hear the faint sound of telephones ringing. With a few steps more they hear the indistinct chatter of multiple people talking over one another. The camera follows close behind and as the two finally break the threshold into their office — the camera then slowly swings around them revealing a room full of Globe staffers manning a series of phones which are furiously ringing off the hook. They frantically jot down notes, recording as much pertinent info as they can from the victims dialing in to tell their stories, before moving on to the next caller. Sasha and Mike look on in stunned silence. Eventually, one of the reporters on the phone breaks through their hypnosis and asks, “Can one of you guys get that?” And they get to work.

Image: Open Road Films

Image: Open Road Films

I’m describing this scene from memory, because it is such an impactful, meaningful moment. It is a supreme payoff — for the narrative, for the characters and most of all, for the victims who found hope through the Globe’s dogged commitment to thorough reporting. Sitting there in the theater, I could feel a cold hush fall over the audience, as if we were all doubling over from the exquisitely executed emotional punch orchestrated by Tom McCarthy.

I know there’s a practical explanation for why this scene works so well; the screenwriter laid the foundation with a strong script; the director of photography lit and shot the scene with emotional impact in mind; the actors performed their roles note-perfectly; the editor cut it together and, of course, the director supervised the whole process. That’s all grounded and “real”, but the cumulative effect of all that effort — what the audience felt during that powerful moment — was pure magic.