Spotlight has taken home the Best Picture Academy Award, and bully for its filmmakers. I’m happy about this for a few reasons:
- Journalism gets a boost.
- My pal and former editor Christy, who did press for the film, gets to ride the wave.
- Director Tom McCarthy, who did not win, deserves the attention.
Spotlight was not my favorite picture of the year; given my druthers it’d be Mad Max: Fury Road or Room, but I live in fantasyland so you can just scoot right over that. Spotlight was a well-made prestige picture with solid acting and zero internal drama: We know the priests were found out, we know there were extensive internal shakeups and prosecutions, and nobody actually doing the journalism was ever seriously under threat while struggling to tell the story. It was no All the President’s Men; it wasn’t even Silkwood. And the fact is, Law & Order told the story already in 1994 with “Bad Faith,” which means an impactful movie about this topic has been due for over 20 years.
I digress: The thing is, despite my misgivings about the delayed nature of telling the story, I’m really glad for Tom McCarthy. He’s a character actor first, a guy whose all-American good looks slide off the screen, but who is completely competent when he takes on those jobs. Fortunately, he’s even better at telling story as a director, so it doesn’t matter (and being an actor he probably knows how to relate to fellow actors in a way many directors don’t). So I’m going to share with you my one Tom McCarthy story, the thing that made me not just a fan of his work, but an admirer.
His first directing job was 2003’s The Station Agent, a film I didn’t see until years later on cable, but which is classic indie not-much-happens-but-it’s-meaningful storytelling. Plus, you get a pissed-off Peter Dinklage pre-Game of Thrones, and that makes it worth it. But I saw his 2011 film Win Win in a screening where he and some of the actors were in attendance, and loved it. It’s a little hard to explain what it’s about; mainly, it’s a small story about people who have to learn to figure out their places in the world, but it rang a lot of bells of truth for me. It’s a movie I really wished high school students could watch.
So afterward, I found McCarthy at the post-screening party and asked him: Why the hell is this film rated R? Yes, there’s about two “fucks” in it, but really? It could have such a great message to confused kids in schools, and it tells its story without being preachy or afterschool special-ly. So what was up?
And he told me: He couldn’t take those words out. They had to be in there. It just was part of the storytelling. And the MPAA said fine, you keep both uses of those words in and you’re getting an R. And he would not back down — it just wasn’t going to happen. This was the story he needed to tell, and eventually he did hope teens would see it but after a long battle with the ratings folks he couldn’t make that choice.
A lot of us would have. Gone for “frack” or “feck” or something. I probably would have. I’m in the midst of a creative process in which I’m getting a lot of feedback and pushback and I have to say to myself all the time: Do they have a point, or should I tell the story the way I feel it needs to be told?
Win Win was not my film, and it wasn’t my choice to make. And I had to agree that McCarthy was right: Those particular swears are integral to the story. They’re not random. They have to land.
So congrats to McCarthy. I’d have given you the Oscar earlier than this, but I’m glad it arrived for your work (even if you didn’t get it for directing). And for readers out there, if you haven’t seen Win Win, what the fuck are you waiting for?