All the church’s children

spotlight

The Spotlight team investigate decades of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the early 2000s.

Spotlight is the closest journo-movie heir to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men, and it has the bloodline to prove it.

Enter the Boston Globe offices in 2001, a land of cubicles that is not very different from that of its journo-movie forefathers. A new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, so subtle and unrecognizable) arrives at the office, and redirects the Globe’s Spotlight team, an investigative unit within the paper, to cases of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area–a city that, director Tom McCarthy ominously reminds us often with with nearly every exterior shot, celebrates its Roman Catholic roots with a church in every neighborhood.

The Spotlight team is supervised by Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, as effortless and charming as ever)–who is, yes, the son of the editor at the Washington Post during Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate, ergo, bloodline–and comprised of Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton, who is more refreshing here than he was in, say, Birdman), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, turning in an energetic performance), Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams, effective and appropriately restrained), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James, solid and sometimes even humorous).

The team discovers that the Boston Archdiocese have been covering up the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests for decades. And, it’s not just a Boston problem–it’s happening all over the United States, and perhaps all over the world. Although cases of pedophile priests  and their subsequent cover-ups have been on the evening news for more than a decade, it never becomes less disgusting, or less shocking. We know that, and the film understands that all too well.

What allows Spotlight a place in the upper echelon of journalism movies is that it’s really about the work itself. It can feel like a slow burn procedural sometimes, but it’s not a procedural in the way, say, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a procedural, because it doesn’t play games with the audience, and it doesn’t treat its subjects like spectacles. The film is not afraid to shy away from the fact that important stories get shoved to the side all the time, and it’s easy to wonder why justice doesn’t prevail as quickly as it should, even when the film’s heroes are at the helm. And like all good journalism, it’s also an exceedingly straightforward, earnest, and compassionate film.

As much as the film wants to celebrate its journalistic heroes, it’s also a film that allows the disturbing abuse to speak for itself. There’s a scene at a diner where Sacha talks to a gay sexual abuse victim and he abruptly ends his description of his encounter with the priest with “then he molested me,” and Sacha urges him to be more specific, because, well, words, however painful, really matter in this story.

Sure, Sacha believes him, but she knows that her readers like details–or else, they–we, the public–may not believe it at all. However, it’s the kind of scene, if done poorly, could feel like a spectacle awaiting the dramatic swelling of a film score, but the subtlety alone gives the audience a sense that McCarthy and Co. care about the victims and want to give them a fair chance to tell their stories, without any judgment or distractions.

Similar to how journalists operate, McCarthy treats its audience like a court of public opinion. The film meticulously documents the discovery of each puzzle piece, proving it time and time again, until it is deemed fit to fall into place. It wants to be a film that doesn’t take that many chances, which works in the film’s favor.

Also working in the film’s favor is the ensemble cast. The cast spits out McCarthy and Josh Singer’s dialogue with serious urgency, and balanced by movie office-calibre wit. Other noteworthy performances include Stanley Tucci, as an attorney advocating for sexual abuse victims, and Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan, as attorneys who assisted the Catholic church in settling under-the-table sexual abuse cases.

Spotlight is not a frivolous film, nor is it an ambiguous film. It’s a film that treats its victims, survivors, and heroes with the kind of respect they deserve. Although it’s a film that clearly condemns its villains–the church and church leaders–it’s also somewhat empathetic to their plight, in a way that makes the situation more frighteningly human than purely monstrous. Yes, there’s a sense of black and white here, but the film is smart enough to acknowledge that the audience’s choice shouldn’t be so difficult at all.

 

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Steve Jobs’ world’s a stage

stevejobs

Real-life person Steve Jobs (as played by Michael Fassbender) is a brilliant jerk who the film wants to help redeem.

I saw Steve Jobs on Veteran’s Day, after it was already pulled from 2,000 theaters. I had enough faith in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle–that the two of them, together, were going to make something acerbic and visually stunning, intelligent and sympathetic. Sorkin could be the conflicted half–idealistic, but jaded–and Boyle could be the nurturing half–idealistic, but hopeful.

Yet, I’m running out of cute adjectives to defend reasons why Sorkin and Boyle could be the right writer/director duo for this particular project, because deep down, I yearned for the encore partnership of Sorkin and director David Fincher, the collaboration of the ages.

However, Sorkin and Boyle were still trying for a breath of fresh air. It’s distinct from any traditional biopic, or any traditional movie of the past few years. Because it’s essentially a three-act play, a forgotten disclaimer, which, in a way, sealed its destiny to not be very financially successful, with a very different kind of seal from, say, a Steve Jobs movie starring Ashton Kutcher.

With that three-act play format, Sorkin’s playing homage to an era of film that wanted to transport all the things that made theater great–the acting and the writing–rather than being overtly cinematic. By focusing on three chapters of Jobs’ life–the launches of the Apple Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac–Sorkin is able to follow the same man, in different circumstances in the grand scheme of things, but in similar circumstances if you had a microscope–a narrative technique that allows some fun with time, place, and characters, who act more like hyper-verbal leitmotifs than actual people. And the best part is, in every act of the film, Jobs is preparing to go on stage. Because, well, get it?

That’s sort of at odds with Boyle’s style, which is one that is incredibly cinematic, visual, uplifting, personable–the kind of style that relies on a movie camera and an editing room to portray well. But ironically, that’s precisely what makes Sorkin’s script a bit more humane, and more than a screenwriter’s experiment. Thanks to Boyle, the film is unafraid to be sentimental, apologetic, and well, preachy.

The flip-side of being a somewhat gooey film is that it makes it easy to humanize an unlikable character. We meet Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, in a thrilling performance)–demanding, egotistical, nervous. We are meant to hate him, but also sort of like him, in all his Sorkinesque, anti-hero glory–because he’s brilliant, and witty, and hurls all those hyper-articulate insults that we wished we had the power to say.

In the course of the film, Jobs confides in his marketing executive, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, a good foil for Fassbender’s ultra-intensity), who plays every female role in Jobs’ life, with the exception of a lover; demands the impossible from his engineer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, in what is probably destined to be an overlooked performance); shuns his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, a serviceable performance) and his daughter; disregards his old friend’s Steve Wozniak’s (Seth Rogen, doing his best in a dramatic role) contributions to Apple; and tries to both reject and hold on to the only father figure in his life, Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, who is really wonderful here). At the end of the day, though, it’s evident that Sorkin and Boyle agree on one thing: we’re supposed to like their version of Jobs, because underneath all that assholism is a poor boy who wants to love, and be loved.

While watching it, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Social Network, for obvious reasons–Sorkin, tech, prestige picture. The Social Network was both timely and timeless–a masterpiece, and the best film of the decade, thus far. To put Steve Jobs’ box-office failure in perspective, it’s integral to look at why The Social Network was so wildly successful. Simply put, The Social Network came out when Facebook just became a really big deal, and Mark Zuckerberg was sort of an enigmatic wunderkind in the tech industry. Sorkin was able to mold his version of Movie Zuck into whatever Tech Movie Universe he wanted to drop this kid in, and it would feel persuasive. Because at its heart, The Social Network was not just a Greek tragedy, but it’s about a time and place–a social commentary, if you will–and not really about Mark Zuckerberg at all.

That said, Steve Jobs is really about Steve Jobs, the man. Or it was really trying to be–or trying to concoct a version of Steve Jobs that may or may not be real. But too much is already known about Steve Jobs–too many movies, documentaries, and books have attempted to both mortalize and immortalize the man–that the public is surely suffering from Jobs fatigue. That’s the only part where the movie feels a bit disingenuous, in the sense that it’s atoning for a real deceased man’s sins, or sometimes, preaching to a deceased man, but that deceased man has been fictionalized to serve plot purposes. Yes, it’s pretty ambitious, but also pretty silly. Because the public already knows too much about the man to believe in a cheesy movie version of him–and that’s where I think Fincher would have done better.

But it’s even sillier to dwell on what-ifs. Not to say that Steve Jobs is not the movie it was supposed to be. In fact, it was simply the case that it was not the movie I wanted it to be. Despite everything, though, Steve Jobs is still a very good movie–great, even. Visually stunning, beautifully edited, sharply written–it demands your attention, if you care about dialogue, acting, cinematography. However, even if it did sell tickets along with its critical acclaim, there wasn’t any promise that the general masses would have enjoyed an esoteric three-act play disguised as a movie.

Sorkin and Boyle has made a film that’s conceptually absurd in its ambitions–sometimes chaotic, sometimes sweet, sometimes moralizing–but it sort of captures what a cinematic-theater sub-genre could be like, with all its loose ends and tied knots, creating what is ultimately a staged spectacle projected onto the silver screen.