Michael Keaton is back in the Oscar-season Spotlight

16 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams shine ‘Spotlight’ at TIFF.

I recently had dinner with a top film publicist who remarked that the start of Oscar season feels a little quieter than usual. When director Tom McCarthy told Walter “Robby” Robinson that Michael Keaton would be playing him in Spotlight, the true story of the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal in 2002, the veteran journalist was delighted.For those of us who cover movies at the Globe, there was no way the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival could be anything but surreal, given that it would involve watching the global film community digest a movie made about the place where we work and the people we work there with. A lot of the presumptive contenders have started screening to so-so reviews, she noted, and no one film has dwarfed the competition yet. “Where’s that front-runner making all the noise?” she said.

More than 20 years ago, Keaton starred in Ron Howard’s The Paper, playing a savvy New York tabloid’s Metro editor who could get into any restricted building with just a clipboard and a confident wave — the kind of character who would’ve fit right in with Robby’s Boston colleagues. “He said, ‘[The Paper] happens to be one of my favorite movies on journalism, because I was a Metro editor, and that’s what it’s like,’” McCarthy said. It’s a story – about the Massachusetts’ Catholic sex abuse scandal – that won the gang a real-life Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and it’s a Thomas McCarthy movie that will leave Toronto with front-runner status in the awards-season short-hand. To see some of those journalists up onstage with their celebrity doppelgangers at the Princess of Wales Theatre after Monday night’s “Spotlight” screening — Walter Robinson next to Michael Keaton, Mike Rezendes paired up with Mark Ruffalo, Sacha Pfeiffer with Rachel McAdams, Matt Carroll with Brian d’Arcy James, Ben Bradlee Jr. with John Slattery, Marty Baron with Liev Schreiber — was startling enough. Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo were among the stars who bounced between the two floors of the venue during the night.

Well, this week we got a Best Picture front-runner, but it’s the furthest thing from noisy—in fact, this modest drama is probably the quietest film to lead the Oscar pack since The Artist. As Liev Schreiber passed by us at one point – fetching his own drink, and looking menacingly hunky, at this, the most boisterous party of the fest – Pfeiffer admitted that she wasn’t that familiar with McAdams’ work before.

With the Internet just starting to catch on as a news source, the main difference is the use of spreadsheets and the economic pressures on the Globe, which had been acquired by the New York Times in 1993. The stealth pacesetter I’m talking about is Spotlight (starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams), which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival after acclaimed bows at Venice and Telluride. The spotlight team headed by Walter Robinson (Keaton) was used to choosing their own projects, but when an outsider from Miami (played by Liev Schreiber) is named top editor to shake things up, he strongly urges Keaton to focus on the molestation allegations, a subject the Globe has historically never pursued with much vigor. There are still a handful of movies left to screen this season that could make a convincing case for Best Picture, but they’ll now have to steal the spotlight from … well, you know. The film’s ensemble is an embarrassment of riches, with additional sterling performances from Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, and Liev Schreiber, but Keaton is the first among equals and for the second consecutive Oscar season, the Birdman star comes to the festivals with a film that’s generating awards buzz.

What the film gets brilliantly right is how journalists can get co-opted by the institutions they cover — in this case, the Archdiocese of Boston and the powerful Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) — when their interests converge. His father, Ben Bradlee, was only the most famous editor in American newspapers of the last century and famously played by Jason Robards in the Watergate classic.

This year, at least according to some (Vanity Fair, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, and GoldDerby among them), the buzz is building around “Spotlight.” Of course, that could be temporary at best, given that several other highly anticipated films — “Steve Jobs,” “Carol,” “The Revenant,” and another Boston-shot movie, “Joy” — will be unveiled to most critics elsewhere in the coming weeks. And just how much courage it takes to pursue a story that may alienate many of your readers (Schreiber, whose character is Jewish, is informed by the publisher that 53 percent of the Globe’s readers are Catholic). They were eventually able to out nearly 90 Boston-area priests as molesters and exposed a pattern of corruption at the church where the higher-ups privy to the scandal would effectively silence any accusers who came forward. In addition to the positive notice that Spotlight received, his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates have won three in a row and are positioned for another playoff run. Starting with allegations against a single priest who may have abused as many as 80 children over a period of decades, the reporters start digging in, talking to victims (Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton, memorably, play two) they previously ignored and realizing the problem is much larger than they thought.

The meticulously sourced, exhaustively comprehensive exposé by the team of Globe reporters (who interviewed at least two victims for every one of those offending priests) offered a mountain of evidence that the church, the city, and the world could no longer ignore, and in 2003, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. They have a double-header with the rival Cubs on Tuesday, and Keaton is punching up baseball stats on his phone to research the day’s pitching matchups.

John Slattery (L) and Michael Keaton attend the Spotlight TIFF party hosted by GREY GOOSE Vodka and Soho Toronto. ( Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Grey Goose Vodka) The rabbit-hole of fictional and real-life characters continued when Ty Burr, the Boston Globe’s long-time film critic, stopped by to talk. He’s the one who’s declaring that Spotlight may be – bittersweetly, perhaps – “the last great newspaper movie.” He pointed out that this will be a first: writing a review of a movie that’s essentially about his work place. “The only way to get around it is to admit one’s biases upfront,” Burr told me. True to my 47 years of experience working for daily newspapers — including stints as a reporter and high-ranking editor in news departments — is that the reporters (all lapsed Catholics, as it happens) have to repeatedly coax lawyers (Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup) bound by confidentiality agreements, and one with close links to the cardinal (Jamey Sheridan), for leads on where to search for smoking guns.

It’s not a showy, bombastic picture—it has that in common with the journalists it portrays, who are mostly concerned with ducking their heads down and doing the work—but it’s so assured, so deft, and so satisfying that I think it’s destined to go far with Oscar voters of just about every demographic. Everybody thinks, “Oh, that’s a great [Oscar campaign] move.” But then you think about it and go, “How do you not do that, though?” You couldn’t not have these people around, and they’ll be around for all this stuff over the next few months. Stopping to speak to him, I complimented him on his Instagram feed, which isn’t the stuff of selfies and sunsets, but often of headlines he’s drawn to in newspapers.

The film is set in 2001, and the journalist in me noted the wealth of research capabilities and personnel at the paper, things that are considered a rare luxury these days. It also has the sort of social significance that Oscar voters like from their Best Picture winner: You can pat your back for putting it on your ballot.

Brilliantly acted by the year’s most carefully assembled cast, and flawlessly directed by Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight’’ is one of the year’s best films, a timeless story of tirelessly uncovering uncomfortable truths. Plenty of Oscar voters will give Spotlight their No. 1 spot, but this audience-pleaser is sure to collect just about everybody else’s No. 2 votes, and that may be crucial in a year where several of the biggest movies yet to screen, like Joy and The Revenant, come from some of our most polarizing auteurs. This is a true ensemble cast that will go over well with SAG voters, and Keaton (as the team’s leader) toplined last year’s Best Picture winner, but I suspect Spotlight’s best-positioned performer is Ruffalo. Slattery, by the way, was in particularly jolly spirits, and talking about his new upcoming role – as a potential love interest for Julia-Louis Dreyfus in HBO’s Veep!

The twice-nominated Avengers star plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes as an ultra-committed workaholic so devoted to his investigation that he has no room for a relationship, nor any interest in sprucing up his sparse apartment. Now, people don’t have the money to do it, so you then say, “Well, why would a person go in to journalism?” and you know, for a 15-year old kid or 25-year-old guy, I wonder what their perception of journalism is now. Rezendes dashes everywhere and speaks in fast, clipped sentences—anything slower or more considered would just be wasting time—but Ruffalo gets to vary those intriguing intonations later in the picture when he’s handed the movie’s two big, righteous monologues. In fact, I’m dull, but George Clooney’s or somebody’s life who is a big exposed guy, you’re out there all the time in the world in somebody’s camera somewhere. So I watched him and I called McCarthy; I go, “He doesn’t have an accent!” He said, “No, but keep watching the other interviews.” Then, all of a sudden, [the accent] pops up.

Sometimes he’s very casual, but the other thing is, he might not be a killer, but he can be real, real tough when he has to be, with whomever he has to be tough with. People told me I shouldn’t — “No, you’re a movie star,” you know — but I find certain stories interesting and I like to work with actors and good directors. You see how much [her character] is hurting because she doesn’t want [her grandmother]’s world to come crashing down [because of the newspaper’s story].

Though I’m curious: [Tom] Brokaw told me once that the editor of the Post-Gazette in my hometown in Pittsburgh said that that paper does pretty well, their reader base is pretty strong.

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