Thursday, February 4, 2016

Oscar Talk: Spotlight

This year's best picture Oscar may well go to "Spotlight."

The movie is based almost too dutifully on the Boston Globe's Spotlight team of investigative reporters and their five-month effort to expose pedophile priests and, just as bad, the failure of Boston's archdiocese and cardinal to protect Catholic children from known abusers.

The 2002 effort won the Globe team the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, which it well deserved.

The movie is hailed as the best newspaper movie since "All the President's Men," which scored a supporting actor Oscar for Jason Robards (and other prizes for its screenplay, art direction and sound) but lost out to the first "Rocky" movie for the best film award.

Movies like these, pitching noble newsfolk against corrupt institutions, appeal to the idealism of filmgoers.  Who doesn't like to see bad guys rooted out and exposed?

As the story has it, the Globe's new editor asks questions about a single, brief report on the topic on his first day at the paper.  As a newcomer to largely Catholic Boston, he is curious and wants to know more.  This shakes up the reporters, who had not thought about a possibly larger trend, and their follow-up leads them to the big story.

I do not know anything about the Globe and this story, but I used to be a newspaper reporter.  I would make these points:

             -- It is common for a new editor to order up a big story that takes out after
             major local institutions shortly after arriving in town.  It's a territorial thing.

             -- It is uncommon, particularly since 2002 when the Globe reported this story,
            for multiple reporters to spend months on a single project.  It was unusual even then.
            -- The reporters' activities read true.  The shoe-leather journalism of seeking out
            victims with stories to tell, the hours spent reviewing court records and church
            directories and old news stories, the confrontations with people who know plenty
            but flat-out lie to reporters -- all are real.

In fact, the actors and the actual Spotlight team members have gathered several times at film festivals and such.  It appears they are good buddies now.

As a movie, "Spotlight" is pretty good, but if I had made it, I might have done a few things differently.

I'd start with Rachel McAdams, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.  The character is drawn as a really nice woman, kind and careful and sweet, very close to her devout Catholic grandmother.  Any woman with professional experience knows that being a really nice woman is key to success in a generally male environment, but portraying such a character is not much of a challenge for a talented actress like McAdams.  No Oscar for her, I think.
       On the other hand, Mark Ruffalo is way over the top in his impassioned portrayal of another reporter, Michael Rezendes; maybe it will earn him the supporting actor prize.  Ruffalo's scene-stealing intensity contrasts jarringly with the low-key demeanor of the other journalists, which may be realistic but, unfortunately, is not particularly interesting.
        On the plus side, the non-newspaper actors -- grown victims of priests, city leaders in denial, the cardinal, and particularly Stanley Tucci as a quirky, dogged lawyer -- are all very good.

Second, I'd have inserted an actual in-person interview (even if it didn't happen) with the psychiatrist who made some of the best points in the movie.  It may be true that the reporters talked with him only in conference calls, but watching people listen to a talking phone machine is not the stuff of drama.  
Third, while the Globe editor said he wanted a story about "the system" and its corruption, the system had more elements than 90 pedophile priests and a cardinal.  Why no scenes of reporters interviewing pastors of churches where bad priests had been assigned?  I can imagine nervous evasions and a montage of doors being slammed in the reporters' faces, good film opportunities.

Fourth, at least one plot point was dropped.  A reporter interviews a defrocked priest (the only priest interviewed) who is in denial about his misdeeds but who also suggests that he himself was molested as a child.  When the man's sister orders the reporter away, there is no follow-up.  The suggestion that priestly abuse may have occurred over generations deserves more attention.
       (In reality, this may have been covered in some of the many hundreds of Globe articles that followed publication of the first story, but "Spotlight" is a movie story, not an official documentary.)

The movie ends with the Spotlight team concluding soberly that Boston's other institutions -- courts, civic clubs, alumni networks, the Globe itself -- had failed to confront the facts that the newspaper finally had brought into the open.  A lesson for us all.

As a final point, I wonder why this movie was made 13 years after the fact.  "All the President's Men," its much-mentioned precursor, was released only two years after the Nixon resignation.

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