Spotlight Is Spot-On

6 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Spotlight’ review: Michael Keaton gets the story.

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.

Movies set in the world of journalism don’t usually concern themselves with the dull but supremely important business of actually reporting the news.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. 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). Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James play the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team reporting to editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose dad was the legendary Washington Post editor you may be familiar with from “All the President’s Men.’’ Like that classic, director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s incisive script for “Spotlight’’ keenly understands how a newspaper works, which in 2001 was still remarkably similar to the 1970s. 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. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team is an award-winning ensemble of investigative reporters who take many months to largely research, prospect, and uncover large-scale stories. What the film really gets 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) — and just how much courage it takes to pursue a story that may alienate many of the paper’s readers.

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. Starting with stories concerning a single priest who may have abused as many as 80 children, the reporters dig in, talking to previously ignored victims. 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. This tautly directed, terrifically acted movie springs from a Boston Globe investigation a decade ago that led to hundreds of incidents of abuse – in reality, an entire perverted culture – being hauled out into the sanitizing glare of daylight.

A fluorescent-lit hovel stacked high with yellowing newspapers and used coffee cups, the Spotlight office consists of Robbie and the three reporters he edits: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a brusque truth-seeker who gnaws at his sources like a dog worrying a bone; Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), whose warmer personal style helps her elicit the long-hidden stories of abuse survivors; and the mild-mannered family man Matty Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who copes with the emotional stress of reporting on child abuse by writing horror fiction on the side. Spotlight is noted for exposing child molestations at the hands of many priests in Massachusetts, as well as the intentional coverup within the Catholic Church in 2002—coverage that earned them the Pulitzer’s public service medal in 2003.

They learn that scores of claims have been privately settled by the church outside the legal system, and that access to those that landed in court mean taking on the church’s lawyers. 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. 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. 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. But the image of two prominent men talking quietly behind closed doors — Law is played with orotund charm by Len Cariou, Baron with sphinxlike self-containment by Liev Schreiber — haunts this somber, thrilling movie and crystallizes its major concern, which is the way power operates in the absence of accountability.

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. 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. Annual directories published by the archdiocese itself allows the team to document 90 accused clerics moved from parish to parish between stays in church-run rehabilitation programs. 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. But McCarthy (who also co-scripted with Josh Singer) finds ways to make each hitch in the reporting process feel as momentous for the audience as it does for the journalists.

The Globe ultimately published more than 600 articles, winning a 2003 Pulitzer Prize, forcing the Vatican to reassign Cardinal Law and triggering worldwide investigations of the church’s coverups of abuses by thousands of priests. 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.

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. Directed by Tom McCarthy from a script he wrote with Josh Singer and based closely on recent history, “Spotlight” is a gripping detective story and a superlative newsroom drama, a solid procedural that tries to confront evil without sensationalism.

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. Taking its name from the investigative team that began pursuing the sex-abuse story in 2001, the film focuses on both the human particulars and the larger political contours of the scandal and its uncovering. 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.

Their supervising editor, Walter Robinson (known as Robby and played by an extra-flinty Michael Keaton), has a classically blunt, skeptical newsman style, but he’s also part of Boston’s mostly Roman Catholic establishment. His film is a tribute to the enduring value of strong narrative storytelling. “Spotlight” doesn’t break new ground stylistically, though it was executed elegantly. ( Masanobu Takayanagi was the cinematographer.

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. He rubs shoulders with an unctuous church P.R. guy (Paul Guilfoyle) and plays golf with a well-connected lawyer (Jamey Sheridan) who handled some of the archdiocese’s unsavory business. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. He follows Pfeiffer as she interviews survivors, Rezendes as he wrangles a zealous lawyer (Stanley Tucci) and Carroll as he digs into long-hidden records, including articles buried in the newspaper’s archives. 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. 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.

Though the film, like the Spotlight articles, avoids euphemism in discussing the facts of child rape, it also avoids exploitative flashbacks, balancing attention to individual cases with a sense of pervasive, invisible corruption. 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.

Numbers-cruncher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) gathers data, and Sacha Pfeiffer and Mike Rezendes begin interviewing people, albeit with completely different focuses. 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.

As the number of victims and predators increases, and as it becomes clear that Law and others knew what was happening and protected the guilty, shock and indignation are replaced by a deeper sense of moral horror. 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.

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. The Globe filed a request with Suffolk Superior Court to overturn that confidentiality agreement and make public the private documents of Church officials. 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. In alphabetical order, we see the names of places around the world where priest abuse scandals have unfolded: multiple cities in Austria, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Tanzania.

At the same time, they are atoning for previous lapses and trying to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that is as integral to the functioning of a newspaper as the zealous pursuit of the truth. “What took you so long?” is a question they hear more than once. Everything in this movie works, which is only fitting, since its vision of heroism involves showing up in the morning and — whether inspired by bosses or in spite of them — doing the job. “Spotlight” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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