Sunday, November 29, 2015

A DYING BREED: a review of "Spotlight"

Screenplay Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Directed by Tom McCarthy
***1/2 (three and half stars)

The news has been cancelled.

That damning phrase has been uttered more times than I am able to count over the years and yet, with each passing year, the truth behind that statement could not be any truer, as far as I am concerned. The rise of the internet, the 24 hour cable news cycle, severe budget cuts, and the decimation of the nation's newspapers would be more than enough to place powerful nails in journalism's coffin. But I also feel that the status of what could be referenced as "opinion journalism" has done more to erase impartial objectivity as well as contributed more than its share to the building of larger and more impenetrable echo chambers that are nothing but self-serving to every individual reader/viewer, thus forcing our overall political/societal discourse to break down.

None of us are really immune and we are all complicit to varying degrees. While I do love Rachel Maddow for instance, as well as John Nichols' especially strong work for The Nation, I also know that their personal politics are a part of the package, inherently existing as part of the stories that they are reporting, an element that is wholly unnecessary. At its worst, we are armed with newspapers as well as a television network, which shall remain nameless upon my site, that clearly, obviously and unrepentantly function as arms of propaganda masquerading as news, and since those outlets have the largest microphones, and most of the print and electronic media plus the radio and television airwaves, alternatives are scant to be found unless one scours for them. But, with the speed of life and survival in the 21st century, how does the average citizen have time and energy to perform their own sense of investigative journalism, the type of which that should be occurring in all of our news sources in the first place.

Director Tom McCarthy speaks to this very issue that befalls the state of our journalism with his latest effort "Spotlight," a taut, perceptive, sobering drama which works as a simultaneous tribute and lament for the very investigative journalism that we deserve and are continuing to rapidly lose. While some critics have already anointed this film with superlatives as "extraordinary," "pulse-pounding" and one source even proclaimed that the film is the finest motion picture about journalism since Director Alan J. Pakula's "All The President's Men" (1976), my reaction was considerably more muted as I did find the film to be a tad more sedate and drier than it needed to be. That being said, "Spotlight" is yet another strong, smart, provocative adult drama currently playing in the multiplexes and art houses that demands your attention.

Set in 2001, "Spotlight" focuses upon the small, insular and titular investigative news team for The Boston Globe as they meticulously and methodically uncover a systemic pattern of sexual abuse of children by the Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts as well as the historical cover up by the Boston Archdioceses.

Based upon the actual series of stories run by the paper, McCarthy presents his cinematic version of the news team which consists of Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slatterly), and Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who, during the course of this film, becomes the new Editor of The Boston Globe, the one who shifted the newspaper's international coverage to more locally based investigative journalism, and was the key figure who quietly suggested the Spotlight team explore the sexual abuse scandal. The combined efforts of these individuals earned The Boston Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

While I am a little bit softer on this film than what the bulk of the reviews have been expressing, I will say that "Spotlight" is a true return to form for Tom McCarthy who has indeed delivered his finest film since the outstanding drama "The Visitor" (2007), which presented a star making performance from legendary character actor Richard Jenkins. With "Spotlight," I was pleased to see how McCarthy never once injected unnecessary drama into his film, one that already possesses an enormous amount of inherent drama considering the subject matter. The entire cast is appropriately understated and firmly on point, working beautifully as an ensemble, although I have to make special mention for the especially sharp work from Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup, who all portray attorneys, representing either the Catholic church or the victims of abuse. And I have to say that Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber in particular continued to impress with their richly grounded work.

McCarthy treats "Spotlight" as a procedural, keeping his film running smoothly at a simmer, allowing any sense of outrage to arrive naturally and without hyperbole. But it is a film that is perhaps a tad emotionally sparser than it needs to be, possibly undercutting its sense of urgency. For my money, the likes of Writer/Director James L. Brooks' classic "Broadcast News" (1987) and Writer/Director Billy Ray's "Shattered Glass" (2003) for instance, spoke louder to me. Additionally, if I were able to change one element, it would have to be Composer Howard Shore's television movie of the week score, which I found to be intrusive to the point of interference. Frankly, and in keeping with no-nonsense spirit McCarthy is obviously attempting to conjure, perhaps having no film score at all would have been preferable.

Regardless, "Spotlight" is a film that speaks powerfully to the painstaking process of investigative journalism, the demanding slowness of its pace, the feverish drive to continuously dig deeper to unearth the grandest truths. Not for sales, or for journalistic glory but for the result of providing an essential public service. And despite any competitive nature between The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald for obtaining information and getting a story to print the fastest, "Spotlight" is an impassioned testament for a period when investigative journalism existed in order to get the story absolutely right, instead of first--a quality that feels exceedingly lost within the speed of our current ratings driven news cycles.

The action of "Spotlight," such as it is, is to regard these journalists in pursuit of a story that is of course, dogged, but one that even transforms them within the process of building and creating the piece over an extended period of time. Certainly writing and editing is paramount, but McCarthy gives those aspects a back seat to the extended, exhausting research process, which continuously informs the team of what precisely is the story they are attempting to tell. Is this a story about one pedophile priest or is this truly the story of a historical cycle of abuse?  Watching the team build trust with their interview subjects, while also sparring with members of the larger community, plus attorneys and representatives of the church is fascinating enough but in the spirit of these journalists, I believe that McCarthy also wishes to delve deeper to determine precisely what is the story of his film.

In a way, "Spotlight" does not necessarily have to be about this specific news team or even this specific story about church sanctioned child sexual abuse. As I previously stated, McCarthy allows us a window into the world of these journalists as we see how they are personally affected by the story they are collectively reporting. As all natives to Boston, the scandal carries a personal weight as McCarthy suggests a larger implication when dealing with social injustice. The more the news team discovers, the angrier Mark Rezendes grows while both Sacha Pfeiffer and Walter Robinson succumb to a grander sorrow. It is as if McCarthy is suggesting to us that if we are able to see it, then we are involved, for with our silence, we are therefore complicit, in even the worst aspects of human behavior. With that conceit, McCarthy ensures that "Spotlight" exists as more than a newspaper drama. It is a plea for our collective sense of humanity, especially when it comes to the safety and protection of our children combined with our collective sense of moral obligation.

I have expressed upon this site more times than I can count that we are living in very dark times. Angry, divisive times during which our sense of discourse has grown increasingly volatile and vicious. I really believe that the nature of our news has quite a part to play within this breakdown, something else "Spotlight" speaks to. Yes, politics are personal but isn't it necessary for our society to have our news delivered to us impartially instead of existing as an extended op-ed piece (at best) designed to speak to specific groups of people, while excluding all others who do not exist within a certain bubble?

The beleaguered HBO drama "The Newsroom" from Aaron Sorkin, while flawed, tried its very best to provide a lament for how our news information was gathered, presented and consumed in the past as we are bombarded by news that is not news in the present. But Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" achieves the same goal at a higher level and completely without any proselytizing. McCarthy, like his characters and the real world journalists they represent, has mined deeply, unearthing the larger truth that we are all complicit in the news that we receive. And if we continue to remain silent, we will only receive the news that we deserve.

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