Sunday, December 13, 2015

Spotlight

Alternate Title:  The Priests and the Pedophiles

One sentence synopsis:     Reporters from the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" investigation team unearth the truth of a massive conspiracy by the Catholic Church of Boston to cover up the sexual abuse of children by hundreds of Catholic priests.


Things Havoc liked: In 2002, just after 9/11's coverage was finally fading from the news cycles, the Boston Globe published the first of over six hundred articles about the sexual abuse of children by priests within the Boston Archdiocese, and about the widespread and concerted effort to cover it all up on the part of the Catholic Church. The driving force behind these articles was the Globe's "Spotlight" team, an investigative-journalism unit who wound up winning a Pulitzer for their work in exposing the crimes and the coverups. And now along comes Tom McCarthy, an actor/writer/director best known for comedies and warmhearted fluff pieces like Up and The Station Agent, to try and bring this story to the big screen, with the help of a solid cast and a writing staff cribbed from Law & Order and Aaron Sorkin vehicles. I've certainly heard of worse ideas.

Spotlight is a procedural film at its core, a type of movie that has, ironically, more in common with heist films than it does with other news-based movies such as The Paper or Network. The assembled cast of characters has a job to do, and the movie is about how they go about doing it. These kinds of movies can work if the process of performing the job is sufficiently interesting, which is why most procedurals revolve around crime, either as mysteries, cop dramas, or criminal capers, and if the cast assembled to perform the job is good enough, then it will keep us interested. Fortunately enough, Spotlight succeeds on both counts. The entire Spotlight team is a murderer's row of good actors that I enjoy watching, from Michael Keaton to Mark Ruffalo to John Slattery to Rachael McAdams, all of whom play real reporters, current or former, of the real Boston Globe. McAdams in particular shines, as she always does, bringing the same sensibility she had in A Most Wanted Man to a movie whose intentions are considerably less axe-grindy, while Slattery (playing actual Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr.) gets to do what he's always done best, which is to stand around and look shocked at the information other people are bringing to him. The entire affair is overseen by Keaton, playing Editor-at-Large Walter Robinson, a local Bostonian who schmoozes with the great and the good of Boston's elite, politely fending off "requests" to turn his attention to other matters by the powers that be. This gives Keaton a chance to do what he does best, which is to mug for the camera while taking a principled stand, rightly or wrongly, and he confirms that Keaton's disappearance from film between the mid-90s and the mid-10s (the occasional appearance in Jackie Brown notwithstanding) was a terrible mistake, and I need to see him more often to compensate.

But the best performance in the movie by far is Liev Schrieber's (shout out to another native San Franciscan!), which consists of him doing the exact opposite of what he usually does best, which in most movies is to shout and look menacing (and occasionally to narrate documentaries about finance, football, and the greater cosmos). Schreiber plays Marty Baron, the newly-inaugurated Chief Editor of the Boston Globe, summoned from Miami by the paper's New York-based ownership under the assumption (universal among the paper's staff) that he is here to oversee staff cuts and the shuttering of the venerable institution as part of the ongoing century-long trauma that has been the "death of print". And yet no sooner does Baron arrive than he kick-starts the entire investigation by more or less forcing the Spotlight team to begin paying attention to an issue regarded as too small and too local for their purposes, at least until it becomes clear that the story is anything but. Baron's motives are never explained, not overtly, but the movie characterizes him via everyone else brilliantly, as everywhere he goes, everyone treats him with formal politeness, all while making absolutely certain that everyone else remembers at all times that he's That Jew From Miami, an outsider come to ruin the paper, Boston, and Catholicism itself. An early meeting with Cardinal Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese, ends with Law giving him a welcoming gift of a Catechism manual. But even with this treatment, Scheiber plays Baron at a level of quiet professionalism, never raising his voice or responding to the alternating flattery and threats of the established forces of Boston's Catholic organizations, but quietly encouraging his team to do their jobs, safe in the knowledge that his very boring nature is his secret weapon.

Material like this is hard to stay above board with, as the temptation is so great to start sermonizing on the failings of wicked men or corrupt institutions, but Spotlight keeps its focus relentlessly upon the reporters and the objects of their reporting, the minutiae of how one goes about getting information from a less than willing subject, or deals with bureaucratic obstacles while trying to obtain public records. The tale of horror that the reporters uncover grows and grows and grows, from 1 sick priest to four to thirteen to ninety, and at each step the characters are left to wonder just how far it will lead. Along the way they deal with other parties, such as the irreplaceable Stanley Tucci, playing a lawyer for a number of abuse victims, as well as support groups, other victims, and even the perpetrators themselves. A standout scene midway through the film has Rachel McAdams approach a house, looking for a source, only to meet one of the accused priests directly, who amazingly consents to being interviewed, beatifically admitting to her that he molested a number of boys, but that everything's all right, because he never took pleasure in it, and since the church has declared that his sins are now forgiven, there is no harm done. This sort of alien moon-logic juts into the film's reasonably placid world like a knife every so often, reminding everyone of just how it was that a conspiracy of abuse such as this could possibly happen, and bringing the consequences home, as one reporter discovers that a classmate of his was abused by their football coach/priest, and that he was only spared because he was lucky enough to play hockey, and another realizes that one of the various "treatment centers" that the Church uses to hide the pedophile priests is just around the corner from his house. These sorts of terrible discoveries serve as their own motivation, as the staff of the Globe continue their work through to the final breaking of the story, and the conflicts and agonies they suffer as a result seem entirely real.


Things Havoc disliked: I realize that these actors are playing real people, and that real people have real traits that need to be kept in mind, but boy are the accents in this movie pretty bad. Mark Ruffalo sounds like he has cotton balls stuffed in his mouth, as if material like this meant that he had to commune with his inner Marlon Brando. His character is mentioned at one point as being Portuguese, but no accent or point of origin could possibly explain the resulting full-mouthed blubbering that Ruffalo gets up to during most of the film. The quest for an authentic sound also bedevils Michael Keeton, whose character speaks in a loose slur the entire film, sliding from one word to the next such that I, at least, found it almost impossible to hear what the hell he was saying. His character, while a local boy done good who boozes it up with the high society folks of Boston's elite, is nowhere established as being a drunkard or even ever drinking to excess, so why he decided to put on a pastiche of an Irish drunk is beyond me. Maybe the original character did sound like that, but I'd prefer to dial back the verisimilitude a bit in favor of understanding what the hell people are saying.

There's also, more directly, the flip side to a movie this careful and procedural. The film starts slowly and never really accelerates from there, as characters look into what they regard as a nothing case buried in the back-archives before slowly coming to realize what is actually going on. I have no problem with a slow burn, but Spotlight seems to tread on the notion that you already know these characters and the environs that surround them, rendering the first half hour or so of the film... I won't say boring, but definitely slow. It picks up, as the investigation gathers steam and the consequences for the reporters, the city, and the church become more and more clear, but it's the sort of film one does have to stick with.


Final thoughts:   Spotlight is the exact sort of film that Hollywood and the Awards organizations love, a movie about old-school journalists doing their jobs to solve some terrible societal crime that permits everyone to get misty-eyed over how wonderfully noble journalism used to be, and what terrible fallen times we live in. I thereby predict that when the Oscar nods are announced next year, we will be hearing more about it. Lest I sound too cynical however, Spotlight is also an extremely well-made film, starring a number of superb actors performing meaty material with a script that does not lead them off a cliff. The land of Oscar Season is strewn with the broken remains of films that tried to be as quiet-burn, as respectful, and as focused on their subject matters as this one was, and a film that clears the hurdles that lie in wait for would-be awards fodder is worth recognizing when it lands.

Spotlight does not indulge, by and large, in lengthy invective against the Catholic Church, who knew of this pattern of horrid abuse for decades if not longer, and took every step imaginable to cover it up and allow it to perpetuate. Not, at least, until the very end, when in a final title card, it lists the cities in which the church was also found to have participated in a conspiracy to abuse children and pervert justice. The list is hundreds of cities long, in every state, every country around the world, and each one represents a pattern of child abuse abetted by and all-but sanctioned by the Church authorities. Nearly 300 priests abused kids in Boston for decades and were allowed to get away with it, and Boston was but one city on the list. Spotlight and its director/writer Thomas McCarthy are not to be commended for casting light on this pattern of abuse, for that was done by the Globe investigators, and they already shared their deserved Pulitzer for it. Instead, Spotlight is to be commended for realizing, as so few films do, that when you can deploy statistics and lists this damning, there's no need to say anything else.
 
Final Score:  7.5/10


Next Time:  Rocky VII.  It has come to this.

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