Two new films based on true events are figuring prominently this holiday season though both are far removed from Christmas cheer. One is something of a disappointment; the other, however, may well win the Oscar.
Let’s start with the good news first. “Spotlight,” a wonderfully double-edged title referring to the name of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that threw a harsh light on the Catholic Church’s handling of its pedophile priests, is a taut story of investigative reporting. Given the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly quiet film–only Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes yells and bangs the table (in contrast, Stanley Tucci, as victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who should be among the noisiest, remains ruefully contained). While the acting ensemble is superb, what makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the manner in which the story is told (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wrote the screenplay; Mr. McCarthy also directed).
Without being didactic the film carefully limns the how of the abuse and the Church’s cover-up. The film is rich in the details of corruption, from the priests who groomed their child victims, to their superiors who pressured the parents to keep things quiet “for the good of the church,” to the attorneys on both sides who profited from the tragedy, to the higher-ups in the diocese who moved child molester priests like chess pieces from parish to parish or put them on “sick leave.” We see the reporters interviewing several victims, now adults, and learn how the predatory priests used classic techniques of victim selection–targeting boys from broken homes, those with alcoholic or abusive parents and boys with effeminate traits scorned by their peers. In essence these priests traded attention and acceptance for sex. As one victim explains to a “Spotlight” reporter, it starts with a priest telling a dirty joke to a boy, then showing him a porno magazine; it’s only then, with rapport established, that the touching begins, culminating in sexual contact. Although “Spotlight” refers to the fact that girls were victims, too, we don’t see them. But we do see the resulting wreckage in the adult survivors—Patrick, now a heroin addict; Joe, a recovering alcoholic; Phil Saviano, now a victim’s advocate but at first glance a seemingly unhinged nut job.
Yet, as new Boston Globe Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) correctly insists, the real story is not just priestly pedophilia or Cardinal Law’s knowledge of it, but the Church as an institution that chose protection of these priests over the well-being of children and their families. In a city of such Catholic prominence, the Church almost callously played on the ties that bind community and family to ensure silence despite the enormity of this tragedy (The Globe’s “Spotlight” confirmed the Church’s reassignment of 78 abusive priests within the diocese). The film pulls no punches when it comes to how easily the status of clergy gave these men the authority to do what they did. As Attorney Garabedian notes, “You don’t question God.” So the excuses pile up: in Editor Baron’s introductory meeting with Cardinal Law and his attendance at a Catholic charities dinner, he’s continually reminded that the good the Church does should not be thrown away because of “a few bad apples” (“Spotlight” makes it clear that the Church’s apologists raised those damn apples so many times they practically had an orchard). But “Spotlight” also acknowledges that the Globe itself was at best a tarnished hero. It seems that at least five years before the magazine’s investigation got underway, two separate sources had approached Globe personnel who had either failed to grasp the extent of the abuse and the corruption that institutionalized its continuance, or perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the story.
The performances in “Spotlight” are first-rate; you never catch anyone acting. Michael Keaton as the magazine’s editor is astonishing; if you thought he was great in “Birdman,” wait until you see this. Liev Schreiber is memorably quiet in his character’s insistence; Rachel McAdams as the reporter who serves as conduit to the victims comes to mirror their pain as she begins to question her own faith. Stand-outs among the fine supporting cast include Paul Guilfoyle, the Church’s attorney who leans on Keaton to kill the story; Neal Huff as victims’ advocate Phil Saviano, Jamey Sheridan as another “It was my job!” Church attorney, and especially Billy Crudup as the smarmy victims’ attorney who in essence sold his clients out in favor of going along to get along.
This is one film I can’t wait to buy the DVD of.
As someone who’s long been interested in the Blacklist Era, I’d been waiting for the release of “Trumbo,” the story of a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1948. Ultimately I found the film somewhat disappointing; perhaps its biggest fault is that given the ground it covers, it should have been a short dramatic series on HBO or Showtime instead of a movie.
“Trumbo” spans about 16 years in the life of Dalton Trumbo, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1940’s and an unapologetic Communist. Along with many others, he had found the appeal of the Party to his liking during the Great Depression of the Thirties; while his political beliefs remained unchanged, the national climate didn’t. In post-War America, with Eastern Europe coming under Communist sway, membership in the Communist Party, aka being a “Red,” though legal, was thought to be the hallmark of a Soviet agent. So HUAC, ostensibly investigating “Communist influence in Hollywood,” in essence conducted show trials over several years, ruining lives and careers. The Committee’s techniques and goals were of course later used by Senator Joseph McCarthy and various organizations that cleared politically “clean” talent to work on television. For a fee of course.
As you can see, this is a weighty subject spanning Trumbo’s long journey from success to jail (for contempt of Congress) to working under assumed names to reclaiming the fame and career that were rightfully his. Unfortunately “Trumbo” doesn’t rise to the occasion. While I realize this is a dramatic film and not a documentary, the filmmakers made some very strange choices. John Wayne and Hedda Hopper are singled out as Hollywood’s anti-Communist movers and shakers, though in reality most of the damage was done by the studio executives who joined together to fire and blacklist suspected Communists and fellow travelers, and numerous actors and other talent, including Ronald Reagan, Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, who became friendly witnesses for HUAC. It’s one big clinker for the film to suggest that Trumbo’s career came to a halt because Hedda Hopper threatened Louis B. Mayer with the public unmasking of his Russian-Jewish roots (not a secret anyway), though I’m glad we see the anti-Semitism that underscored the Red-baiting years. And though the film suggests otherwise, Trumbo wasn’t the entire Hollywood Ten. I have to confess I miss Ring Lardner, Jr.’s famous response to HUAC’s demand that he name names: “I would, but I’d hate myself in the morning.”
“Trumbo” does much better after the screenwriter gets out of jail. The scenes with his family, and especially his fanatically working seven days a week under a host of pseudonyms for the cut-rate King Brothers while writing two Oscar-winning screenplays (one fronted by another writer who was himself later blacklisted; the other under a pseudonym), are among the best in the film.
While “Trumbo” has its failings, the performances do not. Helen Mirren gives nastiness much style as the Woman You Love to Hate—Hedda Hopper, failed actress turned gossip columnist and arch conservative (By the way, Hedda’s Navy son who’s so frequently referred to was Bill Hopper, later famous as Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” TV series). David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman are amusingly accurate as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, respectively. Louis C.K. is quite sympathetic as screenwriter Arlen Hird (an invented character), who despite lung cancer seems to hang in there for an incredible length of time, and as you would expect, John Goodman is refreshingly pure id as schlock producer Frank King. Bryan Cranston manages to use the constant exposure to his advantage as Dalton Trumbo, and Diane Lane miraculously avoids cliché as his wife.
But the best performance in the film belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, liberal Democrat and supporter of the Hollywood Ten. This is where we get some nuance after all the posturing. His sense of self-disgust after disowning his political position and naming names in front of HUAC is palpable as he sits awaiting clearance from John Wayne to be able to work again. I wish “Trumbo” had included more of this, for as the man himself acknowledged much later in life, to the fury of some members of the Hollywood Ten:
The blacklist was a time of evil…no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil…[Looking] back on this time…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.