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

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.