Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spotlight (Anonymous Content, First Look Media, Participant Media, Rocklin \ Faust, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Spotlight, the winner of the Academy Award as Best Picture of 2015 (though it won only one other award, Best Original Screenplay for Tom McCarthy — who also directed — and Josh Singer), and one which I quite enjoyed even though I was acutely conscious of its limits — and Charles, who had been underwhelmed when I brought home the DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack (someday I’ll have to figure out how to connect my Blu-Ray player so I can watch Blu-Rays with sound!), fiddled with his smartphone through much of the first half of the movie until I called him out and said, “I didn’t think it would bore you that much!” As just about all the world knows, Spotlight is about the investigative reporting team from the Boston Globe that spent two years (2000 to 2002) tracing the extent of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic priesthood and the role of the church’s hierarchy in covering it up. The title is a pun — “Spotlight” is the name of the Globe’s investigative team, which was set up separately from the rest of the paper and had the freedom to pursue big stories even if it would take months to create something publishable from the mass of raw data and the struggles to get sources to speak to them, and as the name of the film it also means the spotlight the paper’s investigations shone on the burgeoning scandal. Tom McCarthy, who before this film was mostly an actor, cited a wide variety of films as influences on the project, including Frost/Nixon, Broadcast News, Network, The Killing Fields, The Insider, Citizen Kane, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, The Verdict and Good Night, and Good Luck, but the obvious big influence on this movie (and one McCarthy copped to) is All the President’s Men.

Both All the President’s Men and Spotlight are about intrepid reporters chasing down a conspiracy involving a hugely powerful institution — the White House in All the President’s Men and the Roman Catholic church in Spotlight — and dealing with pressures from high places to curb their investigation. Both films deal with the chancy relationships between reporters and their sources, many of whom are unwilling to talk at all, including the elaborate subterfuges deep-background sources often demand for their cooperation (though there aren’t any secret meetings in parking lots in Spotlight there’s a chilling scene in which a reporter asks a church attorney to confirm whether any of the priests on a list of possible pedophiles they’ve compiled from church records are indeed molesters, and he takes the pen the reporter has offered him and circles all the names on both pages of the list, indicating that all the priests on those lists are pedophiles), and both also show how boring the work of a journalist can be, especially sifting through records looking for tell-tale bits of information that might give away a secret. One obvious difference is that in All the President’s Men there were only two reporters, and they were played by “A”-list stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the height of their careers; in Spotlight there were six, and they’re played by, if not “B”-listers, then certainly “A-minus”-listers: Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the Spotlight team; Mark Ruffalo top-billed as Mike Rezendes (he’s from the Azores and the name is Portuguese — one commentator noted he was the first person nominated for Best Actor for playing a Portuguese since Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous in 1937); Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer; Brian d’Arcy James (definitely the hunk in this cast!) as Matt Carroll and two others who kind of get lost in the shuffle. The ensemble casting works effectively and dramatizes how journalism, especially at this level, is inherently collaborative.

The other major issue in Spotlight is the tension between the long-term journalists at the paper, many of whom are Boston-born and –bred, and Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the new editor the Globe’s corporate owners have just brought in from Miami to take over the paper — and, since the events of this film take place between 2000 and 2002, when the long shadow of the Internet (or, as I like to call it in these contexts, the “Interblob,” since like the Blob in the 1958 horror “B” of that name it seems to be sucking up everything in its path like a giant amoeba) was just starting to cast itself over the print medium and the reporters are worried one of the things Baron is there to do is lay a lot of them off in order to shrink the paper’s staff to match its declining profits. (There’s a reference in the dialogue to the Globe losing classified ad revenue to the Net — one of the first bad effects the Internet had on newspapers and journalism as a whole.) I’ve read enough stories in the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere to know about this and to share those writers’ anxieties that the rise of blogs and piece-rate Web sites are drying up the available funding for long-term journalistic investigations like the one against the Catholic priesthood depicted in this film; so many people are writing news stories and analyses without being paid, or being paid very little, and so many people at traditional newspapers are being told to write quick, short stories that will generate page counts for the paper’s Web site instead of long investigations like Spotlight’s that won’t generate publishable stories for months or even years. There’s even a family connection — literally — between All the President’s Men and Spotlight; one of the Globe staff members depicted is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), son of the legendary Washington Post super-editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, Jr. in All the President’s Men. Spotlight not only feels like a 1970’s movie plot-wise, it’s directed like a 1970’s movie, with relatively long takes, an understated editing style and cinematography that features a wide palette of natural colors instead of making everything look brown and dirty green. There are a few nighttime interiors in the past-is-brown style, but mostly cinematographer Masanobu Takayangi shoots the people and backgrounds in realistic colors — the Boston Red Sox baseball game two of the reporters go to is a feast of green grass and colorful people in the stands — when I saw the Japanese name credited as cinematographer in the closing credits, I joked, “It takes a Japanese cameraman to make sure the world isn’t all brown!” Spotlight also benefits from an understated but effective musical score by Howard Shore — who wisely doesn’t bathe this movie in the mock-heroic style of his best-known credits, the Lord of the Rings movies — and an overall sense of sincerity and trust in the material that seems more characteristic of 1970’s filmmaking than 2010’s

Spotlight is an excellent film by one set of criteria — it’s vividly acted (most of the cast members went out of their way to meet Ronald Pthe real-life people they were playing and copy their mannerisms and even their accents; some “trivia” items on the film noted how hard Michael Keaton worked on the accent, since the real Walter “Robby” Robinson didn’t speak with a discernible Boston accent until he got excited and those nasal “Baah-stun” tones came out, and so Keaton had to decide scene-by-scene when he should speak normally and when he should do the accent), impeccably and straightforwardly directed (McCarthy definitely trusted his story basically to tell itself without any dazzling visual atmospherics or editing tricks), and with a well-constructed script that threw enough obstacles at the reporting team (including the 9/11 terror attacks, which occur just as the investigative reporters are nailing down interviews with the victims they’ve been able to identify, many of whom are understandably skittish and have had to experience a lot of persuasion to get them to cooperate, and which had a local connection to Boston since the two planes that hit the World Trade Center had been hijacked from Boston’s Logan Airport; after 9/11 editor Baron orders all his reporters to do terror-related stories and sends Rezendes to Florida to do interviews with people at the flight school where some of the 9/11 attackers learned to fly, and he has to rush back in a hurry when a key set of documents the Globe needs to establish the culpability of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the cover-up is about to become public for the first time and he needs to get them before any competing newspaper does) to keep the film dramatically interesting without giving the viewer the sense that the writers are “larding it on.” It’s also worth noting that Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law — depicted with more nuance than most of the characters in the film since his history is as someone who courageously resisted racism in the South in the 1960’s and yet he got personally involved in covering for the pedophile priests — is played by Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury’s co-star in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and two other cast members particularly shine in small parts: Mitchell Cyril Creighton as Joe Crowley, a former victim who grew up to be a Gay man and insists that he would have been Gay even if he hadn’t been molested by a priest but sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of that at least as much as he is the reporters; and Richard O’Rourke as Father Ronald Paquin, who in the film’s most chilling scene tells one of the Spotlight reporters that he “messed around” with kids but made it clear he saw nothing wrong in doing so. For one brief moment we feel like we’re going to get a clue as to what made the abusive priests “run” — a topic on which this script is otherwise silent, though in some of the criminal cases against them pedophile priests have preposterously used the “he came on to me!” defense — only the door is slammed, literally and figuratively, in the reporter’s face by Paquin’s sister Jane (Nancy E. Carroll).

The film does give some insights into just how big the task the Spotlight crew faced — not only in going up against the Roman Catholic hierarchy but also the heavy-duty network of Boston 1-percenters, many of them Catholic themselves, who felt it was their duty to use their influence to protect the church no matter what (a prologue set in 1976, in a Boston police station as a priest has just been arrested but it’s made clear he’s only going to get a slap on the wrist and a referral to a church-run “therapy” clinic, followed by reassignment to a different parish where he’ll have a fresh crop of victims to prey on, is supposed to show us how long this has been going on and how little has been done about it) — but it’s clear McCarthy and Singer weren’t interested in the conflicts within the church or how they justified it, or why it particularly happened in the Roman Catholic church. One therapist we hear as a voice on the phone as the Spotlight people are phone-interviewing him, but whom we never actually see, nor is either the character, Richard Sipe, or the actor playing him, Richard Jenkins, listed on the credits; he claims that the Catholic church’s celibacy requirement for the priesthood had something to do with it and the priests who actually act out sexually with minors themselves had their emotional growth stunted at about 12. But that’s all McCarthy and Singer give us in answer to our obvious question, “Why on earth did they do it?” Spotlight is an excellent movie as far as it goes, but one gets the impression that they could have gone even farther (though maybe the film I imagine they should have made would have been so long they couldn’t have released it theatrically and would have had to put it out as a mini-series on a premium cable channel or a streaming service — in which form I, of course, would never have been able to see it!), and it’s certainly not a ground-breaking movie in any way, shape or form. It deserved its Academy Award for Best Picture (at least I think it did, since the only other nominee I’ve seen is The Martian) — it certainly wasn’t the sort of miscarriage in Academy history as happened when How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane, or The Hurt Locker beat Avatar — and it was quality entertainment, but there are certainly broader horizons the art of cinema can aspire to than this!