Skip to main content

Personally I'm of the opinion that for a paper to best perform its function, it really needs to stand alone.

Spotlight
(2015)

The two Best Picture Oscar contenders focussing on recent real world scandals take approaches that couldn’t be more different, yet both are appropriate to their respective material. Adam McKay musters interest in the inaccessible background to the subprime crisis (and from thence the decade-long downer of global economic meltdown and its aftermath) through a poppy, absurdist spin. Tom McCarthy treats Spotlight with contrastingly sombre sobriety, refraining even from the subdued thriller mechanics that informed the reportage genre’s greatest avatar, All the President’s Men. Occasionally, his picture allows the tensions involved in getting the story to press intrude, but mostly, and rightly, McCarthy is intent on just telling it as it is, with no frills or pirouettes.


Both The Big Short and Spotlight have a similar idea at their core, though, a “Who knew?” that informs the outrage. If The Big Short promotes the view that only its motley band of anti-heroes had the insight to see the extent of the damage poised to rain down on the financial system, Spotlight is unequivocal about those responsible for brushing the Boston Roman Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal under the carpet; everyone is. Even The Boston Globe, the newspaper that eventually breaks the story, is complicit in leaving stones unturned. As Stanley Tucci’s crusading attorney Mitchell Garabedian tells Mark Ruffalo’s eager reporter Michael Rezendes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”.


Garabedian, of Armenian extraction, suggests his lack of Boston Irish credentials lends him the freedom to rock the boat, unimpinged by the instinct to rally around the status quo, or take at face value assurances of one bad apple. Likewise, Liev Schrieber’s Marty Baron, the new editor of the Globe and its first Jewish incumbent, has no preconceptions about pursuing an already covered story, at which his team initially blanche (but in which the energetic Rezendes is eager to sniff around).


Investigative journalism is naturally cinematic, if often narratively dense, and, while Spotlight may lack the paranoid claustrophobia of Alan J Pakula’s aforementioned President’s Men, or the visual panache of Michael Mann’s The Insider, it’s every bit as commanding and diligent in telling its story. From the realisation that these predatory priests (shown ruthlessly seeking out the most vulnerable and afflicted) are just circulated to another parish when their sins are found out, to tracking down suspects through the Church’s absentee codes, a system that perpetuates, even effectively encourages, abuse is revealed.


Tom McCarthy, being an actor (he played a journalist in the final season of The Wire), is an actor’s director, and, as with earlier successes The Station Agent and The Visitor, all eyes are on them, what they are doing and saying. He has assembled an outstanding ensemble, with the Spotlight team (the Globe’s dedicated investigative unit) headed up by Michael Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson and also comprising Ruffalo (occasionally Rezendes is prodded for melodramatic moments that seem a little at odds with the overall tone, such as his silent rumination in the church foyer and grandstanding demand that the story be published forthwith), Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams (her Sacha Pfeiffer doesn’t really stand out in any way, though, making the Oscar nomination slightly surprising).


John Slattery brings the wiry intelligence he displayed in Mad Men to Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr (son of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee Sr, immortalised in President’s Men by Jason Robards), while Schreiber, currently playing a Bostonian in Ray Donovan, is a particular standout, lending Baron quiet assuredness and determination. Tucci knows a great character part when he sees one, as does (uncredited) Billy Crudup, personifying the other side of the legal coin with reptilian warmth; his attorney is responsible for settling many of the church’s cases (out of court). Unknown actors playing the abuse victims are also highly accomplished, including Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton.


McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ensure we’re apprised of the levels of collusion in this, from the police, to the legal world, and the schools (although, the political spectrum doesn’t really intrude). Keaton’s Robinson must guiltily admit to his own effective burying of the bigger story eight years earlier, but his deeper motivations on this are left for the viewer to discern. It is easy to comprehend the creeping defensiveness in action, the allowing of unconscionable situations to continue unchecked under one’s nose, lest it shatter the foundation of one’s reality (one mother is cited whose seven children have been abused). The tangle of conspiratorial legality and omission that prevents the journalists from accessing what ought to be public documents is eventually unravelled by further legal nouse, but even then there are further obstacles before the material is finally accessed.


Singer said the object of Spotlight was chiefly to emphasise the value of good journalism, rather than operate as an exposé of the Catholic Church, which certainly comes over in its telling from the investigators perspective. But the incendiary nature of the actual case is intrinsic to why Spotlight is effective, with the end credits providing a long list of the various places and countries where scandals have been brought to light, the implication being that this was a game-changer in recognising the issue (for which the Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service). However, it does lead one to question what has really changed in the intervening time; the essential story is now so pervasive that the words paedophile and priest are virtually synonymous in the public’s mind, yet the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church has not crumbled. Richard Jenkins’ unseen psycho-therapist estimates that 6% of priests are abusers, so perhaps the devoted flock merely continue to rationalise that it’s not happening in their particular backyard.


In the UK, the attention has mostly been focussed on celebrity paedophiles over the past few years, but it hasn’t stop the supposed bastion of illumination that is the media from shutting the conversation down when really dangerous ground is encroached upon (Tom Watson daring to suggest Edward Heath might have been up to no good; even Private Eye got in on righteously lambasting Watson, indicating its establishment-pricking veneer extends only so far); a few sacrificial celebs and dead MPs are fine, just as long as they don’t lead really high up the pole. The result is the further erosion of already long-since undercut faith in the media (what place investigative journalism in a world where most papers, owned by powerful corporations, cobble reports together from other news outlets and spend their greater energies on fatuous comment pieces?) and the increasing scouring of the Internet for the truth (be if legitimately-sourced or scuttlebutt).


Spotlight may be a little too restrained, too conscientious, too balanced, to take Oscar glory from flashier competitors (it was my tip for the top last month), and it’s certainly no surprise it missed out on a nomination for Best Score (Howard Shore’s drippy piano is a tad too reverential for my tastes). It might be appropriate to honour it now, though, before a movie with investigative journalism at its core needs to be set several decades in the past (rather than just the one) to be remotely plausible.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?