Importance of newspapers shines through in film on church-abuse scandal

6 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Spotlight’ review: Michael Keaton gets the story.

The stellar film provides a stirring look into the nitty-gritty of investigative journalism—and its potential as a tool to right wrongs perpetrated by those in positions of authority. From “The Front Page” and “His Girl Friday” to “All the President’s Men” and “The Paper,” America has been in love with newspaper movies.

Director Tom McCarthy’s drama (**** out of four; rated R; opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, nationwide Nov. 20) embraces both great cinema and even better journalism as it chronicles a Boston Globe investigative team’s real-life expose on child abuse by local priests and the Catholic Church cover-up that followed.To turn a spotlight fittingly on “Spotlight,” it’s the year’s best movie so far, and a rarity among countless dramatizations that claim to be based on actual events.The new film Spotlight, out Friday, works at a rapid pace, speeding along with The Boston Globe reporters through their investigation into Boston’s Catholic Church.

Movies set in the world of journalism don’t usually concern themselves with the dull but supremely important business of actually reporting the news. Its screenplay is self-effacing, its accomplished direction is intentionally low key, and it encourages its fistful of top actors to blend into an eloquent ensemble. Fourth-estate-centric films tend to focus on the glamorous or dangerous world events their protagonists are covering (The Parallax View, The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men with its Deep Throat intrigue), or satirize the sensationalism of a corrupt media (Ace in the Hole, Network), or throw in a workplace romance just to glory in zingy reporters’ banter (His Girl Friday, Broadcast News).

Based on the real-life tale of The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s systematic practice of covering up child abuse, director Tom McCarthy’s stellar film (in theaters Nov. 6) channels its subjects in style, tone and attitude. The Globe group won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2002 work, but the real tale begins a year earlier with the arrival of new boss Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to the newspaper.

But once in a while a good movie about journalism comes along to remind you that behind every important news story stand the men and women who researched, interviewed, and fact-checked to make it that way. A precise, clear-sighted, and thorough account of the scrupulous toil that went into creating this titanic exposé – which, as a textual coda elucidates, led to discoveries of similar abuses in cities around the world – the film is a celebration of fearless journalism, a portrait of irrepressible curiosity and courage, and a tribute to moral rigor that, like its characters, believes in the noble virtue of speaking truth to power. He wants to see the Globe dig into some really hefty stuff, like following up on a recent column accusing a priest of sexually molesting dozens of kids over three decades. McCarthy’s tale focuses on the Globe’s “Spotlight” team, a four-person crew comprised of reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).

And for years, child molesters among the clergy have had just such an army of slaves – church officials, lawyers and even a slightly squeamish press – that allowed them to prey and prosper. While looking into the case of Father John Geoghan—a serial abuser who was moved from parish to parish by the church for decades, eventually molesting 130 children—the staff of the paper’s Spotlight section, a deep-dive investigative unit headed up by Walter “Robbie” Robertson (Michael Keaton), begins to suspect that the scope of the scandal goes way beyond Geoghan himself. The screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer (“Fringe”) gives a shoutout to the Boston Phoenix, which broke the story, but it’s a left-handed compliment. As befits a story about heroic individuals who just happen to be working journalists, the entire “Spotlight” team understood a key tenet of the profession: If you have a good story, over-hyping it will be counterproductive.

That Baron is a Jew in a community and newsroom mostly filled with Catholics only further sets him apart, and marks him as an interloper of questionable trustworthiness. The case involves “sealed documents” the church desperately does not want to come to light and the number of priests who have molested children in the Boston area and what disgraced Bernard Cardinal Law (Len Cariou, “Blue Bloods”) knew and when he knew it. That led everyone, from director Tom McCarthy (who also co-wrote with former “West Wing” writer Josh Singer) through stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, to make sure their presentation was as realistic and straight ahead as they could make it.

A new editor at the Globe wonders why an old story about a molesting priest wasn’t followed up; veteran journalists at the paper wonders if the new guy’s just looking to make a splash. A key figure in the investigation is attorney Mitch Garabedian (a wonderfully woolly Stanley Tucci), an Armenian-American and self-proclaimed outsider who bonds with fellow traveler Rezendes, a Portuguese-American lapsed Catholic, and operates beyond the church’s usual reach. It’s a tried-and-true horror movie trick: The audience’s imagination take over when court records are released and information comes out in various places, such as Rezendes’ constant pestering of the victims’ lawyer (Stanley Tucci).

Instead of stars, the independently produced “Spotlight” derives power from perfectly calibrated performances and authoritative writing that create a rock-solid sense of authenticity in a story of secret horror masked by decades of deception, complicity and neglect—sometimes in unexpected places. O’Neill and fellow Spotlighter Dick Lehr went on to co-author the ever-popular book about Bulger, Black Mass. (Sound familiar?) They weren’t the only outlet on the story. Meanwhile there are flip-phone calls to answer, shadily suppressed court documents to requisition, and whole library shelves of clergy directories to comb through for evidence of systemic malfeasance. That bombshell story begins with the passionate contentions of a lone “survivor,” Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), previously dismissed as a quack with a grudge by Robinson’s boss, deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery).

First for its depiction of the uncovering of what proved to be an international scandal, and also for the way it quietly but potently illustrates society’s need for old-fashioned investigative journalism, the kind of labor-intensive telling-truth-to-power work that’s increasingly in jeopardy. Michael Keaton, as the Spotlight team’s editor and leader, Robby Robinson, leads the cast with dry wit and quick intelligence; his performance anchors all the others.

An article in March of 2001 in the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix detailed similar accusations against Father John Geoghan, who eventually faced accusations of abusing over 130 children. After hearing Saviano’s claims that thirteen abusive priests are operating within Boston, Robinson and company’s interest is piqued, and they begin digging – which leads to fruitful talks with a psychology expert on the matter (Richard Jenkins) and a lawyer representing numerous victims (Stanley Tucci), which motivates them to keep digging. Ruffalo is fantastic as the jittery Rezendes, who’s like a watchdog with a bone, sniffing out sources and working the phones to piece together the story. McCarthy, best known for exceptional small films like “The Station Agent” and the underappreciated “Win Win,” takes a step up in scope and ambition with this film. Written by Kristen Lombardi, that story quoted assault survivors who accused Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, of ignoring previous warnings.

Keaton gets into the thick of it, too, as the no-nonsense Robinson, and Schreiber brilliantly exhibits quiet intensity as Baron, a guy who’s not afraid of shaking things up for the sake of good journalism. McCarthy also works as an actor and, given that one of his best-known roles was as a corrupt journalist in the final season of “The Wire,” there’s something poetic about his being in charge here. Liev Schreiber portrays the Globe’s editor, Marty Baron, as a charm-free introvert, ill at ease and remote in social situations, yet he does it so deftly that Baron comes off as strangely charming—not to mention smart and admirable—all the same. When Mike—who was taken off the story for a short time after Sept. 11—finally makes it to the courthouse where the church records he needs have been filed, he tears through the staid marble halls at a full sprint. Spotlight renders this excavation in meticulous detail, so that even as it (echoing David Fincher’s Zodiac) mires itself in enough names, dates, places and figures to fill multiple filing cabinets, it remains a lucid beast defined by sharp chronological cause-effect dynamics.

Stanley Tucci commands the screen whenever he’s on it as Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has been struggling unsuccessfully to bring alleged predators in the priesthood to justice. He keeps his camera in motion, emphasizing the energy of the work and the desperation of the deadlines by following his characters everywhere – up and down the hallways and stairwells of the newspapers, racing in a cab from courthouse to office. The Globe’s Spotlight team, with a larger staff and broader readership, used evidence from the Church’s own internal documents to advance the story.

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s script peels back layer after layer to reveal uglier secrets and nastier deeds, and it always assumes the point-of-view of its protagonists so that their discoveries are, simultaneously, our own. The movie does feel like it comes from another time — even though it takes place just over a decade ago, this kind of old-school shoe-leather reporting doesn’t seem as prevalent as GIF-bedecked stories and heaps of listicles. They took a process story, one that is surprisingly accurate about both the physical and psychological ways reporters work, how they tirelessly interview, take endless notes and wade through mountains of material, and he gave it the pace and tension of a police procedural. Others in the cast include John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle and, as two Bostonians who were sexually abused by priests as children, Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton.

As for Robbie, he’s busy cashing in favors from a lifetime spent in Boston’s clannish Irish Catholic community, jeopardizing some of his oldest friendships along the way. McCarthy, who has directed only four features until now: “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win” and an Adam Sandler atrocity, “The Cobbler,” that shouldn’t be held against him. It’s a movie about the tightness of community, too – and so, as one reporter is racing through a neighborhood, the camera casually catches another character, playing in his family yard. Simon wasn’t involved with Spotlight in any way, but the attention McCarthy’s film pays to journalistic minutiae—not just the details of day-to-day reporting, but the delicate protocol of the editorial pecking order within a large daily newspaper—feels Simon-esque.

Like Robinson, Rezendes, Pfeiffer and Carroll, the film moves fast, and forward, until its scope expands to include not only a few wayward priests, but also an institutional system driven to protect itself from disrepute, even at the expense of the very parishioners it was supposed to comfort and protect. As played with the perfect unobtrusive swagger by Keaton, Robinson is easygoing until he’s not, and the way the actor disappears into this unshowy role is as impressive, if not more so, than the pyrotechnics of his “Birdman” performance. And though it never tips its hand in this direction, Spotlight clearly shares Simon’s deep respect for the medium of print journalism when it’s done well. Far from a narrow workplace drama, Spotlight takes time to address how the Church uses its deep roots in Boston’s heavily religious community to hush up its dastardly conduct.

As “Spotlight” opens in July 2001, Robinson and the rest of the staff are worried because a new man, the imperturbable Marty Baron (an astute Schreiber), the rare Globe editor not to grow up in Boston, is about to take over the paper. The Internet plays a part in this movie’s world, of course—the protagonists spend much of their time in front of computers, and a huge AOL billboard looms over the Globe parking lot to remind us of how new the whole concept was back then. The key evidence in those subsequent articles were interviews with abuse survivors and Church documents proving that Church higher-ups did know about accusations against priests and still kept them in churches.

But the most significant turning points in the team’s research process nearly all involve paper, piled by the ream atop desks, bulging from the covers of overladen file folders, or rolling in long sheets through the printing presses that churn out the day’s news in neatly bound bales. Howard Shore composed the score.) All it does—an all as big as the news it brings—is follow the four-word mantra that guides the Spotlight team: “So what happened then?” In Tom McCarthy’s second feature, Richard Jenkins is Walter Vale, a lovelorn academic who finds his apartment occupied, through a real estate scam, by illegal immigrants: Tarek, a young musician from Syria, played with humor and passion by Haaz Sleiman, and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), an endearing, terribly frightened jewelry maker from Senegal. Michael Keaton – and wouldn’t this make an interesting double-feature with the comic “The Paper”? – is the wary projects editor, who’d much rather be doing a take-out on police corruption. In a late outburst by Rezendes – embodied by Ruffalo with a clipped verbal cadence that speaks to his no-nonsense tenacity – Spotlight gives voice to the incensed outrage wrought by the Church’s behavior.

For one thing, 53% of the Globe’s subscribers are Catholic and, for another, as someone says, “the Church thinks in terms of centuries.” But reporters, being reporters, end up simply going to work and doing what they do best. And the talented cast continues to include a fiery Mark Ruffalo as one aggressive reporter, Rachel McAdams as his more quietly probing foil, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as very different attorneys, and Len Cariou as a blandly smiling Cardinal. Though the movie ends after the first story is published in January 2002, reporting over the next year would eventually lead to Cardinal Law’s resignation in December. It’s a democratic operation in which every participant matters, right down to the clerical workers who wheel carts of documents from one Globe department to another. Yet like the groundbreaking story eventually published by the Globe (and the hundreds that soon followed), the film channels that anger into methodically rational, exhaustive censure.

The Spotlight team grew from its original four-person staff as the story expanded, adding Stephen Kurkjian, Thomas Farragher, Kevin Cullen, and Michael Paulson. Pfeiffer, empathetically played by the protean McAdams, is a committed, unflappable interviewer with an unfailing human touch, the person who can sit down with the abuse victims and convince them to tell their story to complete strangers. His Mike Rezendes, a working-class Bostonian of Portuguese descent, isn’t always nice—he can be pushy, uncouth and impatient—but he’s always fundamentally good, so we trust his motives even at his most pugnacious. And yet even more than that, as felt in the steadfast performances of its uniformly excellent all-star cast, it’s a rousing portrait of the paradigm-altering power afforded by that greatest ideal: determined, inquisitive, ethical intellectualism. Rezendes, on the other hand, is a classic newspaper type, perfectly captured by Ruffalo, the antsy, driven, true believer reporter who won’t let go of a tip or an interview subject.

When Mike suffers a crisis of faith near the end of the movie, I feared the film would introduce some flashback revelation about his personal history with abuse—if not his own as a child, perhaps that of someone close to him. He is matched against the reluctant Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), the victims’ attorney, exhausted by years of battling the Church. “I’m not crazy, I’m not paranoid — I’m experienced,” he tells Rezendes. “They control everything.” Because it has done its homework, even letting the real-life reporters vet the dialogue for false notes, “Spotlight” is especially good at the dynamics of interviewing, on what happens when reporters say things like, “Do you want to be on the right side of this story when it breaks?” Honest enough to zing the Globe for neglecting this story for years before it took it on, “Spotlight” is both damning and inspiring, depressing and heartening. The Globe filed a request with Suffolk Superior Court to overturn that confidentiality agreement and make public the private documents of Church officials. It was a kind of moral relief when that moment didn’t come, proof that in this film’s universe, characters could be committed to exposing the church’s deceit simply because it’s their job to uncover the truth when people in power are doing something terribly wrong.

Much of Spotlight takes place in editorial boardrooms, dank library basements (one of them perfumed by a decaying rat), and featureless lawyers’ offices—hardly the exotic, danger-filled locales of your typical thriller. There’s a strange scene in which we hear Mike’s excited phone call to his editor in voiceover as the camera remains outside the cab that’s driving him, at normal speed, from the courthouse to the Globe building.

The disjuncture between the urgency of Ruffalo’s speech and the leisurely pace of the taxi makes for an unintentionally comic effect, as if the car were deliberately ignoring the passionate effusions of its occupant. Spotlight provides a wealth of exceptional performances, with Keaton bringing a prickly intelligence to the role of the socially adroit, journalistically savvy Robbie. Rachel McAdams gets less to do than one might hope for the movie’s only important female cast member, but she makes the most of her limited screen time, letting us see the mounting anxiety and horror behind Sacha’s indefatigably upbeat exterior. A very small subplot about Sacha’s relationship with her fervently Catholic grandmother is as close as Spotlight comes to exploring any of its main characters’ personal lives.

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