‘Spotlight’ on the system

“SPOTLIGHT” is nothing less than a call of time, in the estimation of real-life print media veterans portrayed by some of Hollywood’s most competent actors in this acclaimed drama.

In separate promotional interviews, the crusaders cited the movie (six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture) as a persuasive argument for, in Ben Bradlee Jr.’s exact words, “good investigative journalism in a democracy and the dangers of not having it.”

The story has been widely told: In 2001, Spotlight, the intrepid four-man investigative team led by Bradlee at the time for The Boston Globe, and prodded by new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (now with The Washington Post), dug into an old local case against a Catholic cleric accused of juvenile sexual abuse, and soon detonated a virtual bomb whose fallout would be felt across the world.

It is tempting to contribute to the discussion by way of evaluating the movie, as the subject is no doubt explosive. But that is a potentially infinite (no attempt at religious reference) exercise and, in any case, a Vatican probe is ongoing, with every step getting multi-media attention. Plus, for exhaustive background information, there’s the Internet. A Pulitzer Prize-winning report such as this, one of six that the Globe bagged in Baron’s 11 years there, is sure to live long and gloriously.

Tom McCarthy is nominated for Best Original Screenplay (with Josh Singer) and also for Directing. He faces formidable opposition from four other contenders in the latter race, including Alejandro Inarritu (last year’s winner) for the grueling “The Revenant,” and George Miller for the just as exhausting “Mad Max Fury Road.” Whatever the outcome, McCarthy gets my nod as a former newsman for his recreation of The Boston Globe newsroom, including Spotlight’s little fort elsewhere in the building.

Essential to this picture is the depiction of the Spotlight team. The filmmaker allows minimal cinematic adlibs to their personalities. I get this, because any more would divert from the story, which is provocative enough. Well, except for Michael Rezendes’ (Mark Ruffalo) singular meltdown, hard to miss, being the high point of the movie trailer.

Most of the time, the newsroom and Spotlight office are misleadingly calm, all the excitement happening on the reporters’ desks and computer screens and inside their heads. Much of the physical noise in print media newsrooms flew out the window with last century’s typewriters and stereotypical screaming editors. This is how McCarthy opted to paint the heart of The Boston Globe, the usual zero-hour tension merely implied with journalists gazing at quiet computers, and substantial verbal exchange happening only during story assessments and progress reports.

Speaking of which, had the Baron character been given longer screen time, my money would be on actor Liev Schreiber more than Ruffalo, who is nominated for an Oscar Best Actor in a Supporting Role trophy. Schreiber’s introspective, deliberate, soft-spoken editor-in-chief who buckles down to work on his first day and gets unquestioning support instead of skepticism or opposition is swashbuckling-hero material to me.

The action is intermittently taken out of the Globe building, to show the reporters as they gather data and also to show how a compelling story burrows into the minds of those working on it, emerging unbidden as they watch a football game, wash the dishes at home, go jogging… Not that they’re perfect. By the time the full report is put together, one of the editors has admitted initially ignoring possibly damning information mailed to him quite a while back.

 

Sustained interest

Both filmmakers and cast have consistently pointed out that the least they want their movie to achieve is sustained interest about the scandal because “powerful individuals and powerful institutions should be held accountable.”

Equally strong points of view have been written into the script:

Actor Stanley Tucci as a lawyer for several victims: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child.”

Baron to the Spotlight team raring to break the story, prematurely in his view: “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests… Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top, down… We’re going after the system.”

All told, the Oscar Best Picture trophy may be a long shot but I am rooting for the screenplay by McCarthy and Singer, even if it is reasonable to assume that they got a lot of help from the living persons behind the characters. (And I would be just as happy if the trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay went to Director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for “The Big Short.”)

And retroactively in the future, for Best Promotional Interview—should the Academy ever create such a category—one that Baron (possibly the “best news editor of all time,” according to Esquire magazine) gave, where he was asked about his favorite part of the finished film. His reply was unexpected and definitive of his mindset as a journalist and human being:

“I actually teared up there at the end in the scene where Sacha’s (Pfeiffer, a reporter portrayed by Rachel McAdams, in the race for Best Supporting Actress) grandmother is reading the story and asks for a glass of water. For me that was just a highly emotional moment because it spoke to the impact of the work on the most faithful parishioners in the Catholic Church, and the power of journalism. I was kind of overwhelmed.”

2 thoughts on “‘Spotlight’ on the system

  1. Who knew that making phone calls, sifting through documents and knocking on doors could be so exciting? I’ll have to watch it again, with subtitles, though. Hehe.

    Like

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