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NEW YORK, Nov 3, (Agencies): A group of Boston Globe reporters and editors recently gathered in New York to celebrate the premiere of Tom McCarthy’s drama about their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. When asked why “Spotlight” — the film named after their investigative team — has earned their respect, they respond in an eager chorus.
“They got it right,” echoes around the table of Walter Robinson, who headed Spotlight, former deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr, and two reporters from the team: Sacha Pfeiffer (now a columnist) and Mike Renzendes, who remains a part of Spotlight.
In the film, they’re played, respectively, by Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. Usually, the gulf between fiction and reality, Hollywood and the newsroom (or anywhere else), is too wide to engender the kind of enthusiasm shared among the veteran journalists. “We all feel like we’ve been struck by lightning and it actually feels very good,” says Robinson.
The power of “Spotlight,” in limited release Friday, isn’t just felt by its real-life reporters; it’s a big-screen bolt of inspiration for a beleaguered profession. While the film’s attributes are numerous (its large ensemble also includes Liev Schreiber as former Globe editor Marty Baron and Brian d’Arcy James as Spotlight reporter Matt Carroll), its greatest strength is its rigorous depiction of investigative journalism and its celebration of an increasingly endangered species of news gathering.
“We were driven by: Let’s be as accurate and authentic as we can. Let’s put our faith in that,” says McCarthy, the writer-director of “Win Win” and “The Station Agent.” ‘’We kept saying: We’re not going to be slick with this movie. We’re not going to play games. We’re going to present it.”
“Spotlight” is a journalistic procedural that gathers its drama by closely following the footsteps of the scruffy, dogged Globe reporters. Their reporting uncovered the widespread cover-up that led to Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s resignation, shook the church to the Vatican and offered a modicum of justice for thousands of victims.
To make it, McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer spent more than two years researching each step of the investigation by the reporters, who, though initially skeptical, were won over by the filmmakers’ diligence. In addition to meeting with victims and journalists, McCarthy and Singer combed through documents and emails from the years of work that culminated in coverage published in 2002.
“It became apparent pretty quickly that they were intent on doing as much research about us that we did about the church initially,” says Robinson. “It made us trust them more,” says Renzendes.
The reporters remained involved throughout the scripting, and later met with the actors and visited the set in Toronto, which doubled for Boston.
“To the one, Josh and I really had a strong connection with them and just thought they were really interesting and dynamic people,” says McCarthy. “We had a great admiration for the work they had done. As we brought actors on, and they got a chance to spend time with them, they felt the same way.”
Ruffalo came away with a deep appreciation for Renzendes after shadowing him. “Rarely do you get to sit next to a master and get to understand how they work,” says Ruffalo.
James felt similarly: “People call acting a vocation. I tend to think of journalism as the same, as something that you feel is a higher calling that you bound to do just by what’s inside of you.”
That connection has helped inspire a long tradition of films about journalism, from “His Girl Friday” to “Ace in the Hole” to “All the President’s Men.” The latter, especially, looms large over the genre. The Watergate drama famously fictionalized Bradlee’s father, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
“It was similar in the seriousness that both movies undertook the task to get it right. They recreated the Post newsroom to a T, just the way these guys recreated the Globe newsroom,” says Bradlee Jr. “My father always talked about, for better or worse, people remember him as Jason Robards. He lucked out.”
“Spotlight,” though, isn’t altogether laudatory. It shows missteps, delays and self-destructive oversights in the path to the story. Throughout the movie runs a conversation in subtext, strongly relevant to today’s digitized news world, about how investigative reporting takes time and money and persistence.
“For me, in large part, this movie is very much about faith,” says McCarthy. “And not religious or spiritual faith but institutional faith. Faith in your fellow citizens, faith in a newspaper.”
McCarthy, raised Irish Catholic, doesn’t come from a journalistic background, but he says his experience playing a fabricating reporter on David Simon’s “The Wire” was foundational. McCarthy calls the Baltimore Sun reporter turned TV writer-producer “the devil on my shoulder on this film.” (Simon has heartedly endorsed the movie, likening it to journalism pornography.)
The official Vatican radio has also called the film “honest” and praised the reporters as “paladins of the need for justice” in their community and city.
“Inevitably, I think the film will make young people want to be reporters,” says Pfeiffer. “But what I think is more important is reminding everyone you have to support journalism and newspapers. Buy a digital subscription, get home delivery. You supporting us is how we do this work.”
Mark Ruffalo never walks in “Spotlight.” His very slowest is just shy of a flat out jog. It’s a minor detail, but it’s crucial to appreciating why this studied, smart look at The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the abuses of the Catholic Church is also utterly exhilarating.
This is the kind of simmering process film that makes you want to roll up your sleeves and do some work. To knock on some doors, ask some questions, ignore warnings, crack open a drink, burn the midnight oil and really do something — or maybe that’s just what every journalist watching this film will think.
After all, investigative print journalism isn’t the most cinematic of endeavors. It’s tedious and quiet and there are more dead ends than big revelations. It’s a test of endurance — a long distance run where the finish is not even clear.
Of course, unlike an ongoing investigation, we know the outcome here already. The trick of “Spotlight” is making the potentially unsexy “how they got there” into not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of the best journalism movies of all time.
Spotlight refers to the paper’s four person investigative team responsible for exposing the systematic cover-up of the pedophilia of more than 70 local priests — editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (James).
McCarthy’s movie presents a realistic, but still absorbing portrait of a close knit town and the well-meaning folks at the local paper who for years remained unwittingly complicit in the rampant abuse of power in the Church. “Spotlight” pulls off the tricky feat of detailing the tick-tock of it all, while also giving due respect to the victims, the enablers and the believers.
It takes the arrival of a true outsider to challenge everyone to look a little harder at what’s happening. In this case, it’s the Globe’s new editor in chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). One character who questions his arrival notes he’s an unmarried Jew who hates baseball. But most damning of all — he’s not a local.
Early on, the publisher warns him that over 50 percent of their subscriber base is Catholic. Baron retorts that he thinks they’ll find it interesting, and he proceeds.
There’s a wonderful and all too true resistance in the Globe’s ranks when the investigation gets underway. The paper hasn’t shied away from covering the one off cases over the years, and there’s a well-earned weariness in agitating the Church. Even though many of the reporters refer to themselves as “lapsed” Catholics, the institution remains paramount and the connections run deep.
The Globe editors attend events for Catholic charity, they have sit downs with the leaders of the Boston Archdiocese, and they golf with litigators who settle cases that victims have brought against the Church. A major American city has never seemed like such a small town.
Thankfully the viewer need not have Boston or Catholic roots to care. The thrill of watching a charismatic crew work to accomplish something societally important is enough. This isn’t some hand-wringing, grandstanding, exploitative drama either. Everyone in the ensemble feels very deeply human — they are smart and funny, but serious when they need to be. You know you’re in good company when Stanley Tucci and John Slattery are there as support.
Ruffalo, in particular, uses his full physicality to embody a reporter who’s determined to the point of near mania (though he goes too far in a wet-eyed monologue late in the film). McAdams also shows grit and power both in executing the professional duties of her character and in making the viewer feel how the revelations of the investigation impacts her close relationship with her religious grandmother.
The filmmaking might rely too much on the cheap cutaway — the school bus outside the house of a suspected priest, the laughing kids riding their bicycles in the area, the young choir singing Christmas carols — but that too recedes to the background as you root for the scrappy reporters to defy the system, their families and their town for the greater good.
“Spotlight,” an Open Road Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language including sexual references.” Running time: 128 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
LOS ANGELES: Forest Whitaker and Vince Vaughn will star in the post-apartheid drama “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” with shooting set to start early next year. 13 Films is handling international rights and will introduce the project to buyers at the American Film Market, which launches Nov 4. WME Global is handling North American rights.
Based on the play of the same name by Michael Ashton, the film follows a fictionalized account of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s meetings with Piet Blomfield, a murderer who seeks redemption for the atrocities he has committed while he serves a life sentence in prison in post-apartheid South Africa.
Roland Joffe, whose credits include “The Killing Fields” and “The Scarlet Letter,” is directing from a screenplay he co-wrote with Ashton. Craig Baumgarten (“Hook,” “Shattered Glass”) is producing.
The project has been in development for several years with Whitaker attached. “Forest Whitaker brings a great sense of depth and power to all his performances and he is the perfect match for Tutu’s complex character,” said Tannaz Anisi, president of 13 Films. “Vince Vaughn continues to prove his wide-ranging acting skills following his more dramatic roles in ‘Into the Wild’ and the upcoming ‘Hacksaw Ridge.’”
Whitaker is currently filming Disney’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and will next appear in Paramount’s science fiction tale “Story of Your Life,” alongside Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Vaughn is currently filming Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” with Hugo Weaving and Andrew Garfield. Whitaker is repped by WME and Brillstein Entertainment. Vaughn is repped by WME.