Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Big Screen: SPOTLIGHT (2015)

The director Tom McCarthy is in the peculiar position of having released films in 2015 that are considered among the year's worst and the year's best. The first and apparently worse of the two is The Cobbler, an idiosyncratic Adam Sandler film. The latest, Spotlight, is seen as an Oscar contender and one of the best films of recent times, or ever, in the journalistic procedural genre. It's the story of how a special investigative reporting team on the Boston Globe, goaded by a new editor, broke the story of a systematic cover-up by the Archdiocese of Boston of child molestation by priests and opened a floodgate of revelations around the Catholic world. This is meat-and-potatoes cinema in which content outranks form; expect nothing visionary from it because the story doesn't need it. The journalistic procedural has a pretty strict structure of inquiry, resistance and revelation. Its success depends as much on the quality of the revelations as on any effort by director, writers (McCarthy collaborate with Josh Singer) or actors. Spotlight has a formidable cast of Oscar winners and nominees and superhero actors (the categories overlap) but most of them commit to a realistic professionalism in their performances, with only Mark Ruffalo standing out by conventional standards as the most energetic and argumentative member of the Globe staff. There's admirable realism in the writing as McCarthy and Singer steer clear of certain movie cliches. Hints are dropped of a traitor within the ranks, a reporter or editor who had much of the goods on the Church years earlier but buried the story for unfathomable reasons. The truth proves less dramatic but more plausible: at the time, the guilty party simply missed the implications of the material. The moral vindicates the judgment of the new editor (Liev Schreiber wins the underplaying competition without sacrificing moral seriousness) that "the story needed Spotlight." It's really a vindication of the major metropolitan newspaper, of journalism as a collective endeavor that requires an institutional power base to carry out its essential work in civil society of speaking truth to power. When a lawyer for abuse victims (Stanley Tucci) reminds Ruffalo's character that he'd already talked to the Phoenix, a weekly paper, Ruffalo observes that the Phoenix's dismal financial situation renders it powerless as a tool against the abusers. But if Spotlight is an appeal for power to the press, its entertainment value depends on the moral indignation it generates from interviews with survivors and carefully calibrated info dumps. The film describes a reign of "spiritual abuse" in which molesters exploit their virtually holy standing with vulnerable families and children. In two different cases the early, probing attentions of abusers is equated with God taking a personal interest in people's lives. It will be another film's task to tell the Why of it all, though Spotlight allows characters to make suggestions about celibacy and arrested emotional development. This film is all about the subtle horror of discovery, and despite what I wrote above there are appropriately subtle ways for directors like McCarthy to milk those moments. The best such moment is a long-take that has the entire team teleconferencing with an expert on abusive priests who informs them that their estimate of the number of abusers in the archdiocese is far too conservative. The camera simply pulls back gradually, as if to encompass the enormity of this particular revelation, as the reporters are momentarily too stunned to respond and the caller asks if they're still there. It isn't visionary, but it's effective storytelling, and that can't be taken for granted at the movies. Since I've mentioned some of the actors, I ought to give Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D'Arcy James their just shares of the credit. We probably won't have better ensemble acting this year, though none of them may win a personal award. I can't imagine Spotlight being the best film of the year -- I've already seen better and many of the big pictures are still yet to come -- but I can appreciate why some people think it might be.

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