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…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

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