Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spotlight: The Virtues of Craftsmanship

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.

This review contains spoilers for Spotlight.

The writer-director Tom McCarthy takes a leap into the big time with Spotlight, his extraordinary chronicle of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team breaking the story of the clergy sex-abuse scandal in early 2002. (Their reporting won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.) McCarthy’s first two pictures, The Station Agent (starring Peter Dinklage) and The Visitor (starring Richard Jenkins), are poignant, small-scale dramas that share a theme: the protagonist is a man who has absented himself from the world and, by chance, gets pulled back in. Both are beautifully drawn – perfect short-story movies – and beautifully acted. What’s amazing about Spotlight is that McCarthy, working in collaboration with Josh Singer, a one-time staff writer on The West Wing who most recently penned the script for The Fifth Estate, is able to apply the same focus and the same skills for working with actors to such density of material. The filmmakers’ approach, a combination of intimacy and specificity, approximates the thorough, step-by-step process by which a team of four journalists – Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who report directly to the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of investigations, Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) – set on by the Globe’s newly hired editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), uncover a story of thundering resonance and breathtaking immensity. The movie has breadth and depth; a newspaper picture that flies in the face of the idea that we’re in the twilight of the newspaper business and a social-problem drama that never for a moment slips into melodrama, it is, I think, a classic.

Spotlight is also a tale of Boston, and it gets the city’s weird, distinctive balance of big-city sophistication and small-town parochialism in a way that no previous movie ever has. (Black Mass didn’t even come close.) When Father John Geoghan is accused of preying on dozens of children and a Globe columnist (Maureen Keiller) criticizes a judge for sealing the documents, it doesn’t initially occur to the Spotlight team to pursue the story; it’s Baron who suggests that the Geoghan scandal masks the bigger story of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law’s – and thus the Catholic Church’s – tolerance of abusive clergy. All four members of the team were raised Catholic and three of them are native Bostonians; Sasha comes from Ohio but her grandmother is from Southie and still lives there. Robby is an alumnus of B.C. High School, the most revered of the city’s Catholic prep schools (which sits across the street from the Globe offices), and he plays golf with Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), a lawyer whose firm represents the archdiocese. Their respect for the church and the culture of which they are all unwitting advocates have blinkered them; though all four are ace reporters, it takes Baron, a Jew newly arrived at The Globe from The Miami Herald, to encourage them to drop the project they’re researching and shine a searchlight on a tradition of secrecy and manipulation in their own backyard, arguing that if a priest molested kids in six different parishes over thirty years, then the archdiocese – that is, Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) – must have known about it yet did nothing. (Priests were simply reassigned whenever a complaint was raised.)

Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a volatile and suspicious lawyer whose bailiwick is representing the victims in these cases, and whom Mike persuades by degrees and sheer doggedness to trust him, is the one who points out that it would have to be an outsider, i.e., not Boston-bred and Catholic-raised, to dig into years of clergy pedophilia. (Mitch is Armenian.) McCarthy and Singer agree; scene after scene develops their thesis. On the links, Sullivan expresses curiosity and amusement bordering on concern that the new editor of the Globe is a Jew from out of town who doesn’t even care about baseball. (When Marty and Robby meet for the first time over lunch, Robby comes across Baron reading The Curse of the Bambino to garner some background on his new home.) When Law invites Marty to his office, he explains – using his first name, as if he were a parishioner – that Boston is really still a small town in many ways and lectures him about the importance of its institutions’ working in tandem; Marty begs to disagree – he argues that a newspaper operates best alone – before Law sends him off with a wrapped gift that turns out to be a copy of the Catechism. Marty is also invited to a reception for the Board of Catholic Charities but has trouble getting in because his name isn’t on the guest list, so Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle), a lawyer who sits on the board, vouches for him. Pete and Robby are old friends; they attended B.C. High together. Late in the film, over a drink at a tony bar, Pete tries to convince Robby to back off the Globe’s investigation of the church with a series of familiar arguments that smack of a community’s impulse to circle the wagons in an attack: we need the church badly, now more than ever; a few bad apples shouldn’t be allowed to taint an essentially good institution; Marty Baron is just a careerist trying to make his mark before he goes onto another job somewhere else; he doesn’t care about Boston the way we locals do; it’s Robby who has to stay after he’s left. (This last is also a threat, however polite, however covert.) Conley’s tiered argument is meant to appeal to Robby’s civic and religious loyalties and even, implicitly, to his loyalty to the prep school they both attended. It reminded me of the reasons Dale Dye’s Captain Hill presents to Michael J. Fox’s Eriksson in the great Vietnam tragedy Casualties of War for not pursuing justice for the teenage village girl he saw his buddies kidnap, gang-rape and murder: both are so transparently beside the point that they’ve lost their power to seduce.

From left: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in Spotlight.

Spotlight has both the visceral and the intellectual excitement of a great newspaper picture, where the stakes keep rising as the revelations accumulate. And its intricate depiction of journalistic procedure, as well as its incidental observations about the interaction of men and women in the small but populous circle of the Globe (the growing interest of press room habitués and research assistants as the investigation gets going; an understated moment when Bradlee has to insist that an indignant journalist not on the Spotlight team step out of a meeting so they can discuss a confidential document), has an iron-clad authenticity. Moviegoers develop a bullshit detector for rigged workplace sequences; you don’t have to have spent any significant time in a law office or a car repair shop to know when scenes set in these venues just aren’t right. The other journalism movie from last year, Truth, was also based on a true story, 60 Minutes’ 2004 investigation of George W. Bush’s military service, but though the details rang true to my memory of the news story, the movie was shaped so clearly as a tribute to the uncompromising integrity of the producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), who ended up losing her job, that I didn’t buy any of it except for Robert Redford’s performance as Dan Rather. McCarthy and Singer aren’t out to memorialize anybody in this movie, which isn’t to say that they don’t present the work of Spotlight and the guidance of Marty Baron and Ben Bradlee, Jr. – who has to be persuaded that the story is worth pursuing but has the good sense to trust Robinson’s gut instincts – as admirable. But the movie isn’t about an act of heroism; it’s about the birthing of a shocking story with wide-ranging implications in an environment that, by tradition and by nature, fights against bringing it to light. And to the extent that it is about the members of the Spotlight team, it concerns what the story means to them as individuals.

Initially the team has information on two pedophiles among the Boston clergy, Geoghan and a Father Porter from years earlier whose story is similar to Geoghan’s. But one of their first interviewees, Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), who runs a group called SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), knows of nine more. Saviano is so personally involved and so eruptive – he protests that he sent all this information to the Globe before and the paper buried it – that he comes across, certainly to Bradlee, as unstable and unreliable. But the four lapsed Catholics on the team find his testimony compelling when he reports what it meant for him at eleven years old, a kid from a poor family, to attract the attention of a priest. He takes them through the steps by which a pedophile priest “grooms” a victim and explains that molestation at the hands of a priest is spiritual as well as physical abuse, a theft of the victim’s faith as well as his or her innocence. (Most but certainly not all the victims are male; Saviano makes the point that pedophilia doesn’t reflect sexual orientation.) And he claims that the consequences for the victims are often dire: alcoholism, drug abuse, even suicide. His experience is borne out by the research of a psychiatrist and ex-priest named Richard Sykes, whom Rezendes reaches by phone. Sykes, who’s specialized for three decades in sexual abuse by clergy, identifies the typical victim as a kid from a poor background whose father is dead or absent. And, in a stunning moment, he estimates that pedophilia is practiced by a staggering six per cent of the priesthood – which means not eleven priests but more likely ninety. That’s when Robby gets the inspiration to check the Massachusetts church directories by the year for priests who have been removed from their parishes, and he and his colleagues discover a series of code phrases for temporary absence after victims have lodged complaints: “absent on leave,” “unassigned,” “emergency assigned.” The number they come up with is close to Sykes’ metric approximation: eighty-seven. Meanwhile their interviews with the survivors confirm Saviano’s words. McCarthy intercuts Sasha’s meeting with a young gay man named Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton) and Mike’s – under Garabedian’s watchful eye – with one of Geoghan’s victims, tough-talking Patrick McSorley (Jimmy LeBlanc), a recent father who doesn’t want Mike to use his name because he’s not sure he’d want his son to find out what happened. Joe met his abuser, a hip, long-haired priest named Father Shanley, in a group for kids from trouble families, and began visiting him in his Back Bay apartment (growing up in working-class Dorchester, Joe had never even seen Back Bay before). Joe knew himself to be gay but was terrified to let anyone in his neighborhood in on his secret; Shanley broke him down by assuring him it was all right to be attracted to other men. Patrick met Geoghan after his father had killed himself; his mother was schizophrenic. Joe is a recovering alcoholic; when Patrick gets up after his interview – which he ends by reversing himself and telling Mike that he can use his name if he wants – he reflexively (and futilely) tries to hide the track marks on his arm.

The Spotlight journalists experience the unraveling of the story as a series of personal epiphanies. Sacha’s door-to-door canvasing of poor Boston neighborhoods puts her in contact with not only victims like Joe and others and their family members), some of whom shut their doors in her face, but eventually with one of the pedophiles, Father Paquin (Ronald O’Rourke). Paquin is an elderly man with a kindly demeanor who doesn’t mind admitting that he “fooled around” with some of the kids in his parish but assures her that he derived no sexual pleasure from it and that he never committed rape – and he knows the difference because, he adds matter-of-factly, he himself had been raped. Sacha and her husband have been attending church on Sundays with her devout grandmother (Eileen Padua), but she has to stop; she tells Mike that all she thinks about when she’s there is what she’s found out about dozens of clergy. Matt, working at home, finds the address of a “treatment center” – where priests against whom complaints have been filed are sent, a kind of halfway house before their next parish placement – a block away from his house; panicked, he puts up a sign on his fridge to warn his kids to stay away from that house and the men inside it, but he’s haunted by the danger it poses for the neighborhood. Mike is originally energized by the story because it engages his professional impulses; he’s an investigative journalist to his bones. But of the four members of the Spotlight team, he’s the one who has remained, in his heart if not in his habits, closest to the idea of the Catholic Church; he admits to Sacha that it in the back of his mind he’d planned to return someday. It’s not surprising, then, that he’s the one who has the most trouble controlling his anger at the actions of these priests. When it looks to him like they have enough information – about Law’s indifference as well as about the pedophilia – he champs at the bit to publish the story, and he explodes when Robinson insists that they wait until there’s sufficient documentation about enough of the eighty-seven offenders to ensure that Law won’t just make a meaningless public apology about Geoghan and a few others and permit the church to return to business as usual. “It could have been any of us!” Mike yells and storms out of the office. Of course the other reporters know that they could have been victims too, but Rezendes’ residual love of the church of his childhood allows him to personalize the story in a way that not even his colleagues can.

Robby has the most substantial dramatic arc of the four. He doesn’t have a problem challenging men like Jimmy Sullivan and Pete Conley, whom he’s known all his life, men he considers friends. (When he interrogates Sullivan, Jim observes wryly that he’s finally seeing the Robby Robinson he’s only heard about.) What the process of investigating the story illuminates for Robby is the dark side of Boston’s parochialism: when Conley goes to work on him over that drink, Robby answers, “This is how it happens, isn’t it, Pete? A guy leans on a guy, and suddenly the whole town looks the other way.” (My guess is that years from now, when people talk about Spotlight that’s the line they’ll quote.) Also he has to face up to his own unintentional role in suppressing the story, when Sacha comes across a 1993 clip that hints at a pattern of clergy abuse that the Metro section of the paper – which Robby captained at the time – failed to follow up on.

Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian in Spotlight.

McCarthy and Singer weigh Robby’s character carefully here, and on the other side of the scale they weigh that of Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), the handsome, camera-ready lawyer who, it turns out, has defended many of the victims and secured for them the paltry out-of-court settlements that are all the church will agree to – and that have thus far guaranteed that the actions of almost all the abusers remain confidential. Macleish keeps refusing to discuss the cases with Robby, and it seems for a long time, to Robby and to us, that he’s profiting off the misery of the victims. But the truth turns out to be quite different, in a way that links up with Robby’s own journalistic mistake; the double reversal changes our mind about Macleish at the same time as it brings Robby up short in his own eyes. McCarthy and Singer have written one hell of a screenplay; honestly, I can’t imagine how it could be improved upon, or how the combination of the script and McCarthy’s direction could be more layered. Scenes that play like throwaways in fact uncover entire personal histories, like the one where, hours after he melted down in the Spotlight office, Mike appears at Sacha’s door to mull over what happened and her husband Hansi (Duane Murray) greets him with a cool remark about the rough day he’s had. This isn’t just a caustic reference to his conduct, which Sacha would certainly have shared with her husband; the look on Hansi’s face when he sees Mike tells us about the dozens of times his wife’s work colleague has shown up, interrupting Hansi’s private time with his wife because she has a job that can’t be confined to office hours. We sense Hansi’s jealousy of their closeness; it’s Sacha, not Matt, Mike confides in. And this small moment links up for us with an earlier scene where Bradlee stops by Mike’s ramshackle apartment with a pizza and we learn that Mike and his wife have separated, probably because (as another small moment implied even earlier) she feels he’s more emotionally involved with The Globe than with her. A brief exchange between Mike and a reporter from The Boston Herald in a Springfield courtroom (where Mike’s pursuit of Mitch Garabedian has led him) sketches in the competition between reporters for these two rival newspapers.

I cannot imagine how the acting in Spotlight could be improved; the enormous ensemble is, in a word, magnificent. As Mike Rezendes, Ruffalo has the muscular heaviness of a rugby player and he keeps his big head thrust forward, as if he were always using his eyes, his ears and his nose to locate the next scoop. And his diction is a little cluttered, as if he were always in a hurry and trying to get too many words out too fast. Mike chases after subjects, sometimes with the athletic speed of cops running after perps, and he sticks to them; he wears down the elusive Garabedian by crossing his path continually and presenting so many arguments for the lawyer’s agreeing to speak with him that eventually one captures his attention. Ruffalo’s scenes with Stanley Tucci are clear marvels of character acting – not because the actors are stylized but because their physical and vocal choices are, by dint of the personalities they’re playing, the most conspicuous. (That doesn’t mean that those choices are obvious.) The other major actors in the film – Keaton, McAdams, Schreiber, Slattery, d’Arcy James, Sheridan and Crudup – are equally fine in roles that call for more quietly intense performances; the pauses McAdams builds into her lines when she finds herself talking to Father Paquin, for example, as carefully inserted as retards on a page of music, are clues to the emotions of a journalist so skillful at her job that there isn’t a subject she can’t figure out how to interview, no matter how delicate or difficult the topic. But if there’s a chief protagonist in Spotlight, it’s Robby Robinson. This is Michael Keaton’s true comeback performance, not the one he gave in Birdman, a movie that didn’t give him (or anyone else) anything to play but showboating clichés. Here, in a truly complex role, he’s once again the master actor he showed himself to be in the late eighties and the nineties, the actor that Hollywood shamefully marginalized. He’s never been better, not even in Batman or Clean and Sober.

But it’s not just the actors you recognize who shine in this picture. (That list includes Len Cariou, who manages to use all the qualities that make him such an old faker on the TV cop show Blue Bloods – the sentimentality, the self-righteous pushiness, the overstatement – to suggest Cardinal Law’s suffocating personableness and his slipperiness.) It’s also Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, who comes to the meeting at the Spotlight office with a poster of himself at eleven as if it were exhibit A in the long-dreamed-of trial of the priest who nearly wrecked his life. It’s Michael Cyril Creighton as Joe Crowley, so nervous about talking to Sacha that he arrives for their coffee-shop meeting an hour early. It’s Jimmy LeBlanc as Patrick McSorley. LeBlanc has only one previous film credit (a small role in another Boston movie, Gone Baby Gone), but he’s really something. In his expressive eyes we see the pain of his childhood memories fighting the bravado he’s trying to hold onto as he relates how paralyzed he felt when Geoghan put his hands on him; in his voice we hear Patrick’s shame as he admits that he continued to see the priest afterwards. He even has a tell: he keeps sniffing as if he were trying to absorb back into himself these feelings he’s helpless to evade. It seems as if everyone in the movie who has two lines of dialogue is terrific. Even less: as Sacha’s grandmother, Eileen Padua has only one line, a request for a glass of water when Sacha hands her the story to read in which her dignified reserve tamps down her devastation.

There’s a muted elegance about the look of the film (Masanobu Takayanagi lit it) and even about Howard Shore’s minor-key score. Spotlight apparently brought out the best in everyone who worked on it. American social problem pictures can be rousing and affecting but seldom get much below the surface. This one does; off the top of my head I can think of only one other, Costa-Gavras’ 1989 Music Box, that goes as deep. To my mind Spotlight is indisputably the movie of last year.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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