Margaret DeRosia

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Spotlight Shines

Recent terrorist violence in Beirut and Paris left me and many others feeling vulnerable, sad, angry and fearful. I sensed the world shifting. So this week I wanted a smart and sensitive movie, not to escape from the world, but rather, to reflect on it.

Tom McCarthy’s quietly compelling Spotlight tells the story of a dogged team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe in 2001. They broke the story of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of 87 priests sexually abusing children in Boston — a story that later won a Pulitzer.

Structured like a detective thriller, Spotlight shows reporters piecing together the horrifying scale of abuse and corruption. Not once is it sensationalist or melodramatic. Eloquent writing, directing and acting insure that although we know the story, it’s suspenseful and engrossing throughout.

I first mentioned Spotlight as a TIFF top pick. It didn’t win the audience award, I suspect, because it’s neither showy, sentimental nor cynical. It makes one think as much as feel. Like McCarthy’s other indie films — The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win-WinSpotlight has genuine emotional intelligence, a sense of how real people feel, act, live and fear.

Its stellar cast includes Brian d’Arcy, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci. They’re reporters. They hold their cards close to their chests. So the acting is subtle. It parses out revelations in darting glances at a notepad. Kudos for not sexualizing or backgrounding female reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (played by McAdams). She’s every bit as professional and nuanced as her male colleagues.

It’s hard to pick a standout, but Stanley Tucci comes close. As a curmudgeonly lawyer for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian enunciates a key theme: it takes an outsider to tell these stories. Those inside are usually too steeped in the comfort of denial.

Spotlight‘s atmospheric mise-en-scène lacks superheroes and space stations, so it probably won’t nab any art direction awards. Yet when set against Howard Shore’s moody score, the film captures the milieu of the newspaper world well, something The New York Times film critic A.O.Scott noted in his review: “Journalists on film are usually portrayed as idealists or cynics, crusaders or parasites. The reality is much grayer, and more than just about any other film I can think of, Spotlight gets it right.”

Beige and bare-walled apartments. Leftover pizza for dinner. Drab and fraying chairs in crowded unkempt offices. Petty bureaucrats guarding low-lit halls of records. Ironically, one of the few sun-lit scenes occurs when a survivor recounts heartbreaking memories.

Even minor characters are rich with individuality. Spotlight rejects euphemisms, but handles this history of violence with tact and respect. It makes sure there is no one “type” of victim. Some are straight, some gay; some are young, some old; a few are women and girls, most are boys and men. Some speak tough and some fragile. Each tone morphs quickly into the other, sometimes mid-sentence. All of them suffer self-recrimination, which the priests cultivated. Repeatedly, the film’s dialogue has the reporters — lapsed Catholics themselves — say it was just luck of the draw that kept them safe as children, unlike those whom they interview.

Undercurrents of Bostonian antisemitism are infrequent but damning, as in this scene below. Jewish editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes to The Boston Globe via The Miami Herald, and represents another outsider. He gets the story started, and refuses to let it go.

Spotlight focuses on challenging the institution. Yet it also reminds us that people create and sustain them. Like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby fans today, it’s more comfortable to blame, ignore and discredit victims with this reasonable-seeming logic: Maybe abuse happened, maybe it didn’t. We’ll never know for sure, so we shouldn’t accuse. Someone’s life could get ruined. Forget about it. Move on.

As Spotlight shows, the kids who were hurt knew. Decades later, they can’t move on, only dissolve into tears. They had zero power to speak about it, never mind stop it. One survivor says, “When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal: how do you say no to God?” The movie’s own tagline, credits and website promulgate a narrative of activism to extend past the theatre.

From the opening brief scene — a priest skirting arraignment way back in the 1970s — to the film’s sober closing frames, Spotlight also rallies us to resuscitate investigative journalism. As Scott notes, “Power operates in the absence of accountability.” When sustained research and independent oversight of our most powerful institutions is replaced by a Twittersphere that speaks in 140 characters or less, who else might be getting away with something bad?

In closing, go see the movie. Then read the real-life Spotlight team’s story here. Pay to subscribe to a newspaper that supports investigative journalists. You’ll be glad you did.

Lives of Funny Girls and Women

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I haven’t blogged in a while because I started a new job. When you’re updating websites all day at the office, it’s hard to come home and spend time on your own.

Yet I also have been reading more because of my commute. Inspired by Nick Hornby’s screenwriting in Brooklyn, I read his latest novel, Funny Girl, a lighthearted romp through swinging sixties’ London.

In the book, gorgeous Barbara Parker idolizes Lucille Ball. It opens with a drab beauty pageant, where she is crowned Miss Blackpool — only to reject the crown and flee to London. Soon Barbara, neé “Sophie Straw,” lands her big break. A gaggle of BBC writers and producers spot their diamond in the rough and retool a domestic sitcom pilot. She’s a smash.

The book is pure winsome comedy, with Hornby’s requisite cast of beguiling characters, minor conflicts and bittersweet resolution. Until Funny Girl, most of Hornby’s novels focused mostly on boys and men. They diverge from his screenplays.  An Education, Wild and Brooklyn are dramas of complicated, ambitious young women struggling to self-define — even though it comes at a loss.

An Education shows the cost on a teenage girl entering into an affair with a man several decades her senior. She’s no Lolita nor simple victim, but the undercurrents of anxiety deepen as the narrative unfolds and her prospects for an actual university education are jeopardized.

Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Coast Trail to grieve her mother and her own lost sense of self. Near the beginning, Strayed quotes Emily Dickinson: “If your nerve deny you/go above your nerve.” And so she does. Hornby avoids emulating the bestselling book. Instead, he focuses on the medium of film having its own unique capacity to represent the scattering and devastating rhythm of grief through jarring memories.

At first, Funny Girl seems a different breed. Yet Barbara/Sophie is just as invested in self-defining as her cinematic sisters. For example, she’s gutsy enough to criticize the sitcom mid-audition. Then she joins the writers in re-writing the show that turns her into a star. And her show is titled — with parentheses deliberate —  Barbara (and Jim). It’s her show, not the couple’s.

The biggest villain of Funny Girl is a snobby TV critic named Vernon Whitfield. He dismisses shows like Barbara (and Jim) — and by extension the people who love them. As the show’s producer reflects: “What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”

Here is where Hornby’s stories converge. Whether drama or comedy, his writing sits squarely in the popular. Whether it’s the freshness of confronting class wars in Funny Girl or the high-profile unsentimental dramas of girls’ and women’s lives in An Education, Wild and Brooklyn, Hornby doesn’t reject the popular — even, and perhaps especially, for the girls and women it too often leaves behind.

 

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