I finally caught up with the film, Spotlight, on a plane trip from Los Angeles to London. It won the 'best picture' Academy Award this year. Sure, the acting was good, the story was important, and it was well directed, but what really impressed me was the way it used sleight of hand.
As you may know, it was about a small group of journalists in Boston who set out to expose the way the Catholic Church protected pedophiles. They start with what seems like an isolated case and gradually discover that the cover-up was worldwide and involved at least 90 priests in the Boston area alone.
NOTHING UP THEIR SLEEVES...
So where does slight of hand come in?
Well, usually in a film the structure follows escalating conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. The problem for this story is that although the church tried to stonewall, to prevent the release of documents, and to exert some social pressure on the journalists, the conflict never really broke out into the open. The level of conflict actually remained pretty static.
Nobody fire-bombed the newspaper's offices, nobody threatened the lives of the journalists, nobody followed through on an implied threat to expose any dirty laundry in the histories of the reporters.
Because this was closely based on a true story, the usual dramatic devices were off limits.
To replace the expected escalation, the script did a good job of keeping things moving and reminding us of the consequences if the campaign to expose the cover-up failed. For every roadblock the reporters encountered and overcame (sometimes with relatively little trouble), the script quickly produced a new obstacle.
Many of these were rather boring in and of themselves--needing to get a certain document, for instance, but the urgency with which they were all portrayed kept us watching.
THE VANISHING CHARACTER ARC
There's also no character arc to speak of--the Michael Keaton character comes to realize he was no different from the other journalists in the past who failed to pay attention to accusations against a priest, but it's not a big change. But again the script made the most of a rather thin bit of raw material.
A MODEL PERFORMANCE
If the aftermath of the investigation hadn't been so monumental, the script (by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy) would have lacked the weight required and its smoke and mirrors would have been discovered.
As it was, the film wasn't a big success financially, although the gross of $88 million is more than respectable considering the film's budget was only $20 million.
But for any screenwriter stymied by needing to create the illusion of escalating conflict when there's actually very little, it's a great model.