Sunday, July 31, 2016
Robert Ludlum’s ‘The Bourne Identity’ is an exciting if needlessly overcomplicated espionage novel about an amnesiac assassin trying to recover his memories whilst a shadowy agency manoeuvres him into a showdown with near-mythical hitman Carlos the Jackal. Doug Liman’s film version takes the basic amnesia hook and jettisons everything else. Paul Greengrass’s take on Ludlum’s two sequels ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ retain just the character and title. Tony Gilroy’s ‘The Bourne Legacy’ borrows the title of one of Eric Van Lustbader’s continuation novels but has a completely different main character.
Ludlum was a solid, occasionally inspired, thriller writer who has been particularly ill-served in terms of adaptations: ‘The Osterman Weekend’ is minor Peckinpah, ‘The Holocroft Covenant’ minor Frankenheimer, the handful of TV movies/mini-series have been uninspired, and the Bourne franchise – while generally representing the highest quality of onscreen Ludlum – have very little to do with their source material.
‘Jason Bourne’ – Greengrass’s reteaming with Matt Damon – moves things away from Ludlum even further: the author’s trademark “definite article/name/noun” titling system, which Lustbader had the good grace to preserve, is done away with in favour of perhaps the most insipid title anyone could have saddled the film with. It’s like a making a follow up to ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and calling it ‘George Smiley’.
I’m off to see ‘Jason Bourne’ – or, as I’m already preferring to think of it, ‘The Bourne Reinstatement’ – later today; accordingly, I binged-watched the four preceding films over a 24-hour period as a prelude; and since I’ve not previously reviewed any of them for this blog, here’s a quick-fire appraisal of them: ‘The Bourne Overview’, as it were.
I’d not watched ‘Identity’ in a while and the first thing that struck me is how clunky the computers look in the interminable CIA scenes where everyone spins round from their monitors to import portentous screeds of dialogue while the camera whip-pans over to Chris Cooper as he points and snaps his fingers and barks a lot of gobbledygook that generally begins with the homily “okay, people”. (Granted, David Strathairn says “okay, people” a lot in one of the sequels, so maybe it’s a CIA thing.) The second thing that struck me is how little facility Liman has with action scenes. He’s not bad at foot chases and the mechanics of Bourne evading capture, and there’s a perfectly functional car chase at one point, but the hand-to-hand stuff is so overly-stylised it’s as if Liman were aiming for the balletic intensity of, say, John Woo but only had an episode of ‘Dragonball’ as a point of reference.
What the film does have in its favour is Tony Gilroy’s script, which keeps things moving and pays attention to tradecraft rather than having Bourne’s globetrotting quest for his own identity play out as a Bondian trail of gadgets and destruction. The plot is little more than: Bourne gets amnesia after a failed mission, his bosses think he’s gone rogue, everyone tries to kill each other; however, Gilroy manages to squeeze in a bit of debate on the nature and dehumanisation of what Bourne and his ilk do for a living. It’s there in the human side that he gradually reveals to Marie (Franke Potente), the bystander to whom Bourne appeals for help early on in the narrative, and it’s there in his confrontation with an assassin codenamed The Professor (Clive Owen), a scene which segues from cat-and-mouse tension to a surprisingly rueful character moment.
On balance, while ‘Identity’ is a good but not great film, it’s easy to see why it found a huge and appreciative audience, not least because of Damon’s pared-down performance. Its key appeal, though, is Bourne’s function as an anti-hero; a rebel of sorts. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to call the character a Robin Hood for the surveillance/information age, but he’s definitely a thorn in the establishment’s side, rather than a tool of the establishment a la James Bond.
‘The Bourne Supremacy’ put Greengrass in the director’s chair, upped the ante on the political conspiracy narrative and frankly took the staging of action scenes to a new level. ‘~ Supremacy’ is where Bourne coheres. Strands from the first film – particularly the importance to overarching narrative of junior CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) – are rigorously developed, while Brian Cox takes over from Chris Cooper as a Machiavellian spymaster with a ruthless agenda. Muddying the waters even further, Treadstone – the black ops programme that trained Bourne – is now under investigation by Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). This pressure cooker environment of the CIA dividing into factions and plotting against its own gives the office-based scenes a pulse that Liman tried for but reduced to cliché. There’s a scene, for example, of Landy opening a box, pulling out a file and opening it to find a key piece of information that’s more urgently edited than anything in Liman’s film.
Naturally, these shenanigans define ‘Supremacy’ as a more cynical film; indeed, the first act disposal of Marie is positively mean-spirited even if does give Bourne every reason to take the fight to his former employers. Fight being the operative word. Where the hand-to-hand business was hyper-stylised in ‘Identity’, here it’s down and dirty; Bourne and his antagonists bleed and sport bruises. A joltingly intense car chase in Moscow towards the end of the film sees Bourne hobble away from the carnage with a limp.
Greengrass stages large-scale suspense/cat-and-mouse scenes as brilliantly as he does the action scenes. He has a particular flair for exploding crowds and vast spaces. A sequence where Bourne evades a bunch of CIA operatives as he makes contact with Nicky during demonstration march, trams treading through the bustling mass of protestors, is one of the film’s best moments and points towards a set-piece in ‘Ultimatum’ that is arguably the franchise’s high point to date. He’s damn good with actors, too, as demonstrated by the performances from Damon, Stiles, Cox, Allen and Karl Urban.
As ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ opens, the conspiracy that was revealed at the end of ‘Supremacy’ looks set to cause greater embarrassment to the CIA. Someone in-house has talked to the press about Blackbriar – the black ops imperative that has succeeded Treadstone – and Simon Ross (Paddy Consodine), investigative journalist working for The Guardian, is getting closer and closer to the truth. Another shadowy CIA head honcho type, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who’d rather Landy and Parsons and everybody else connected with Bourne would just shut up and let him get on with his career, and for whom this meddling newsman is the last straw, authorises a hit on Ross on home soil. Cue Bourne’s intervention as he tries to manoeuvre Ross through the crowded environs of Waterloo station under the noses of a surveillance team and a hitman. Greengrass achieves a level of suspense that merits comparison with Hitchcock.
Thwarted in his attempt to contact Ross’s source, Bourne opts for a risky gambit which involves matching wits with Vosen on the latter’s home turf. Along the way, the expected foot chases, car chases and hand-to-hand fights ensue, augmented by a free-running sequence across the rooftops of Tangier. Granted, there’s little in ‘~ Ultimatum’ that hasn’t been done its predecessors, but whereas Greengrass defined the essential Bourne aesthetic in ‘Supremacy’, here he fine tunes it. Consequently, while there’s a sense of the familiar about ‘Ultimatum’, it’s certainly the most satisfying instalment both on a narrative level and as an action thriller. It’s mainstream filmmaking that treats the audience as intelligent and offers a sense of resolution to its protagonist’s journey of self-rediscovery.
Which is more than can be said for ‘The Bourne Legacy’. Gilroy, taking the reins as director, tries to reinvent the franchise with a new character, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), by means of keeping things more or less the same. So instead of having Treadstone or Blackbriar, we have Outcome, a black ops project where operatives are medically enhanced for stamina and intelligence. Instead of amnesiac Bourne, we have chemically dependent Cross. Instead of Marie or Nicky, we have on-the-run scientist Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who joins Cross in his globetrotting. Instead of Cooper, Cox and Strathairn (although the latter puts in a cameo), we have Stacy Keach and Edward Norton as shadowy conspirators.
Granted, Gilroy starts the ball rolling effectively enough, contrasting Cross’s training mission in Alaska with events at the CIA top table as ‘Legacy’ overlaps with ‘Ultimatum’ and everyone involved in quasi-legal black ops work (which seems to be basically the entire CIA) gets cold feet; in particular, Keach and Norton are keen to plug the plug on Outcome because of (a) its operational proximity to Blackbriar and (b) to protect an even more hush-hush project, LARX. Most of the Outcome operatives are taken out quickly in a cynical act of betrayal by their handlers. Cross, still in Alaska, presents a thornier proposition.
In adding another layer to the conspiracy, Gilroy doesn’t so much expand the Bourne mythology – his stated intent – as cheapen it. He cheapens the action, too. His only previous directing credits were talky dramas, and it’s immediately apparent that he’s much happier directing men in suits in offices. Where the action in ‘Legacy’ works, it’s purely because of Renner’s facility in this department. The staging – apart from a decent shoot-out when Cross rescues Marta – is notably poor. The extended motorbike chase that provides the film’s denouement is shot with such little regard for the participants’ spatial location to each other and edited so haphazardly that becomes almost abstract. Moreover, the final act introduction of a LARX supersoldier, coupled with the lack of any real resolution to the story, suggests that Gilroy is trying to establish his own parallel franchise – more of same, with key players from the canon films relegated to cameos. Here’s hoping ‘Jason Bourne’ re-establishes the winning Damon/Greengrass formula and puts a stop to it.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
I remember being in something of a minority regarding Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film ‘Only God Forgives’ – i.e. I liked it. Notwithstanding the welter of bad reviews, I was convinced that Refn had found the most brutal yet visually beautiful way possible of crafting a statement on the brutality and ultimate futility of violence.
At its most striking, ‘The Neon Demon’ is every bit as visually stunning as ‘Only God Forgives’, but that’s all it really deals in: surface sheen. Yes, there’s an argument to be made that the film’s subject – fashion, modelling, and pursuit of success in said milieu at the cost of everything else – demands nothing more than surface sheen. Let’s face it, if you want to satirise the fashion industry, all you’d need to do is point a camera at it and wait for it to become a parody of itself. Which it would do pretty quickly. In fact, you’d barely have time to make a cup of coffee and butter a slice of toast.
Yet ‘The Neon Demon’ always seems to be just a missing scene or another draft of the script away from being something more. The aesthetic ranges from Cronenbergian body horror to a Lynchian exploration of the how the internal landscape is mapped onto the external (or maybe vice versa), while the narrative is a complete mishmash, clearly wanting to evoke classic “rags-to-riches” and “rise-and-fall” stories but mainly chugging along at the level of ‘Showgirls’. If Verhoeven had thrown in necrophilia and cannibalism.
Ah, yes: the contentious stuff. I’d like to think that its inclusion is another indicator of the something else that Refn was striving for – at the very least, the most extreme juxtaposition possible with unnamed but Svengali-esque fashion designer (Allesandro Nivola)’s assertion that “beauty is everything” – but I’m more inclined to believe that it’s simply a reaction to the outrage over ‘Only God Forgives’; a case, in other words, of Refn thinking “okay, you fuckers, this time I’ll give you something to really get offended about”.
The offensiveness-o-meter registers its first blip when small town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning), just 16, orphaned and looking for fame and fortune in the big city, encounters Hank (Keanu Reeves), the manager of the shitty motel she’s lodging at. Hank’s an odious individual from the off; as the film progresses, Hank attempts to pimp out the 13-year old runaway in the next room to Jesse’s wet-leaf boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) – “some real Lolita shit” is how Hank delicately puts it. Later, Jesse ascribes an attempted incursion into her room to Hank, then hears him barging into the minor’s room and a lot of commotion ensuing that sounds decidedly unpleasant. At this point, terrified, she flees the motel and seeks refuge with make-up guru Ruby (Jena Malone).
Ah yes: Ruby. Jesse meets Ruby at one of her early photoshoots and utterly fails to identify her as a predatory lesbian, the single character trait that the script bothers to offer her. As well as seemingly doing every model in LA’s makeup, Ruby moonlights at a mortuary where she prepares cadavers, making them as lifelike as possible for their open coffins. This would have been the film’s best satirical hit, only Refn takes it that bit further … and by “that bit further” I mean straight through the barrier marked “good taste”, all the way down the dead-street signposted “if it was good enough for Jörg Buttgereit, it’s good enough for me” and up in flames as it goes barrelling into the concrete wall spray-painted with “way to go emptying the cinema like that, dude”. Said scene is the most thankless thing modern cinema has ever done with Jena Malone and that includes casting her in ‘Batman vs Superman’ and then consigning her to the cutting room floor. And even then, let’s spare a thought for poor Cody Renee Cameron as the other, uh, participant. Sort of participant. Ahem, moving swiftly on …
It’s also through Ruby that Jesse meets established model Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and aspiring model Sarah (Abbey Lee) – their characterisation runs to sullen with a tendency to bitchiness and sullen with a tendency to self-loathing respectively – and seems apprehensive of them right up to the point where Nivola’s predictably arrogant designer picks her on a whim to be the New Face of Whatever. Granted, Jesse’s transformation from sweet and innocent to not so, played out in a single scene, is the film’s equivalent of the “Club Silencio” sequence from ‘Mulholland Drive’ and lingers in the mind just as effectively.
To be fair, there’s quite a bit that ‘The Neon Demon’ gets right. It’s graced with good performances – Fanning is terrific; Malone, Heathcote and Lee all surpass the thin gruel they’re given to work with; and I haven’t seen Reeves this engaged with a role in ages. Cliff Martinez’s score gives the head-fuck imagery an unnerving aural accompaniment. And speaking of imagery, step forward cinematographer Natasha Braier. A lot of talent and a lot of thought – particularly around the symbolism in Jesse’s hallucinatory scenes – has gone into the production. It’s just that the end result seems so hollow. Had Refn’s go-for-the-jugular approach, rammed home as it is with such exquisite commitment to bad taste, been aimed at a more labyrinthine and multi-layered subject, ‘The Neon Demon’ could have been a visceral and essential work of cinema instead of a vaguely unsatisfying one.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
David Mitchell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ boasts the most formal exercise in structure this side of the work of Iain (M) Banks. Essentially, it comprises six novellas, each in a different genre and written in dramatically different styles, their timelines ranging from 1850 to the dystopian future and a post-apocalyptic society beyond that. The structure is akin to a set of Russian dolls. The first story is told to its half-way point (breaking off mid-sentence), then the first half of the second story commences (containing an echo of its predecessor), and so on and so forth until five stories, incrementally reaching into the future, have been half told. Then the sixth tale – the post-apocalyptic one – is told in full, after which the fifth story is completed, then the fourth, etc. until the reader is returned to 1850 and the cycle is completed, echoes and prefigurations and consequences resounding through time and across continents.
It’s a structure that works beautifully on the page. The grammar of cinema, however, functions very differently. In terms of the written word, perhaps only poetry as an art form can achieve the juxtapositions that cinema is capable of; sure, prose has paragraph breaks and novels are (generally) divided into chapters, but poetry lineates mid-sentence, mid-thought, and set forms such as the villanelle and pantoum use repetition not just to reinforce but to recontextualise, even to subvert. (Incidentally, I’m grateful to Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy for setting me off on this train of thought in his review of Terence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’. Until he’d effected a comparison between poetic form and filmic structure in respect of that movie, I’d been struggling for a point of cohesion in order to write about ‘Cloud Atlas’.)
I’d be fascinated to know whether the script for ‘Cloud Atlas’ was written in the weaving, contrapuntal, slightly undisciplined form that the finished product takes, or whether each sequence was scripted as an individual narrative and the structure, rhythm, pacing and points of connection and intersection were discovered in the editing suite. I really hope the latter, because that allows for moments of “holy shit, we can cut from this to this” or “but what if we have ten solid minutes in this time frame and then – bang! – just half a minute in the next”. Which means that art was created on a feverish high of possibilities and light-bulb-above-the-head epiphanies. And I’d rather have my art created in a cauldron of adrenalin and craziness powered by lightning bolts from the muse. Better that than cool cerebral precision any day.
For the record, cool cerebral precision is a massive bonus if one is creating mainstream product: ‘Yada Yada Yada Generic Tentpole Flick’ will always play better if it’s smartly done and well crafted than if it’s a tired piece of hack work. But if you’re going for broke and bringing to life something bold, visionary, genre-bending, rulebook-shredding and more than a little bit bonkers, then craziness, adrenalin, pinging light-bulbs and zinging bolts of electricity straight from the muse are definitely the way to go.
And there’s no doubt that ‘Cloud Atlas’ is bold and visionary. Bordering on the lunatic, in fact. Pushing three hours, it is packed with famous faces in offbeat roles and it bristles with imagery that walks a tight-rope between the aesthetic (there are individual frames that are as striking and visually beautiful as anything cinema has given us) and the ridiculous, and performances that vacillate between tear-duct-inciting poignancy and a cartoon strip from Viz come to life. ‘Cloud Atlas’ both dares to dream and shrugs its shoulders when it fucks up. A futurist rebellion against a regime that makes Thatcherism look like a teddy bear’s picnic plays off against some shenanigans in a nursing home that come across like ‘Waiting for God’ if directed by Ben Wheatley. A melodrama of art, loyalty and what Bosey called “the love that dare not speak its name” finds an unexpected point of reference in a 70s-set conspiracy thriller. And the furthest point of the narrative, in which humankind is reduced to a cluster of semi-literate warring tribes, contains the crucial detail that ties everything together.
Which isn’t to say that ‘Cloud Atlas’ delivers an “ah-ha!” moment in which everything coheres at a single nexus. Not at all. The film has been confident in its viewer’s intelligence through its long but commendably fleet running time; and it has the confidence not to fall at the final hurdle. It doesn’t so much explain itself to the viewer as give them the opportunity to unpack and consider and return to its treasure-box of themes and ideas and juxtapositions. It invites you into a dialogue with it, and lets you contribute something of yourself. That, for me, is another hallmark of great art.
800 words into this review and I realise that the author of the source novel is the only person I’ve mentioned by name. Not the co-directors, not the actors (many of whom play multiple roles). And I’m not sure that it matters that I haven’t. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is great art – flawed, to a lesser degree, but still great – and better still it’s collaborative art. Collaborative art that, at its most sublime, is a hymn to the individual. A big sloppy work that finds scenes and images of absolute focus. The imperfect almost – almost – achieving perfection.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Paolo Sorrentino’s film is graced with many things: late period great performances by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel (the latter of whom has been, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ apart, ill-served by cinema this last decade or so); an eclectic soundtrack; elegant cinematography; and a cheek-by-jowl depiction of the realistic (ageing, regret, professional failure) and the surreal/metaphysical (no examples: I wouldn’t want to deprive the viewer of some delightful moments). What it doesn’t deal in is narrative.
Which is to say that there isn’t plenty go on – there is: an almost dumbfounding amount – but despite the characters’ clearly, even contrivedly, mapped interrelationships, there isn’t the inextricable interweaving of, say, ‘Short Cuts’ or even a sense of disparate material finding its rhythm and aesthetic in the editing room à la ‘Cloud Atlas’. Instead, we have a group of moderate-to-extremely eccentric people holed up at a spa in the Alps, some of whose lives have parallels, to varying degrees, with others’.
The guest list at this swish Swiss establishment includes a veritable roster of the famous and once-famous. We have Fred Ballinger (Caine), a composer remembered chiefly for his most throwaway work; Mick Boyle (Keitel), a film director trying to complete the script and drum up financing for a movie that might well be his last; prissy method actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano); corpulent former football legend Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano); and the newly crowned Miss Universe (Mădălina Diana Ghenea). Ballinger and Boyle are old friends and romantic rivals, a relationship further intertwined by the impending nuptials between Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and Boyle’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard). Nuptials that get swiftly demoted from impending to ain’t happening when Julian throws over Lena for Paloma Faith (gamely playing a version of herself that the script is unflattering about to put it mildly).
As ‘Youth’ opens, Ballinger is visited the Queen’s emissary (Alex Macqueen), who implores him to conduct his most famous composition, ‘Simple Songs’, at a gala performance. Ballinger refuses for reasons he is reticent to cite. Of course, Ballinger recanting and the film reaching its denouement with said concert is a no-brainer. The two hours in between don’t so much sketch in the circumstances of Ballinger’s volte face as gently suggest them, mainly by playing him off against the spa’s various other residents in a series of wanly observed vignettes.
There’s the contrast between Ballinger and Boyle: the former retired and happy to have shucked off the highs and lows of creativity, the latter still desperate to complete another work. In a surreal moment late in the film, Boyle – rejected personally and professionally by his leading lady of many years, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) – hallucinates an alpine hillside full of the various actresses he worked with, all of them still young while he’s an old man, all of them garbed as they were in his films; just from their delivery of the hamfisted dialogue he saddled them with, it’s clear that Boyle wasn’t that great a filmmaker, that he stumbled from one low-budget no-hoper to the next purely to give a leading role to whichever B-movie beauty was his muse at any one time.
There’s the nexus of personal revelation shared by Ballinger and Tree: both are remembered for just one work – the composer for what was little more than a practice piece, the actor for playing a robot in a trashy sci-fi movie. Both have their dignity returned to them by children who are completely un-awed to meet them: a budding violinist who accepts that while Ballinger’s ‘Simple Songs’ are indeed simple, the simplicity is the key to their beauty; and a young film fan who rubbishes the robot movie and tells Tree that it was his delivery of one single line in a low-key family drama that proved his brilliance as an actor. Sorrentino is wise enough to let these rhymed scenes develop slowly and play them with absolute understatement. Much of ‘Youth’, when pinned down on the page in the context of a review, borders on the hokey. Many a director would have made a pig’s ear of it. (But again, no spoilers.)
There’s the shared moment of transcendentalism which sees an eastern mystic achieve nirvana and Maradona rediscover his old calling, no on a football field, but with a tennis ball on an immaculate court. There’s the contrast between Paloma Faith’s raucously unsubtle pop video and an amateur but heartfelt band performing Florence and the Machine’s ‘You’ve Got the Love’. There’s the experiential spectrum between Boyle’s idealistic young writing team and the world-weary pragmatism of Boyle himself. There’s the juxtaposition between Lena’s budding new relationship with a mono-emotional mountain climber and Boyle hiring the services of a young hooker only to task her to take a twilight walk with him. And there’s the stony-faced couple who take dinner every evening without saying a word to each other, who become a blank canvas upon which everyone else’s interrelationships are projected.
‘Youth’ winds its way to its inevitable but emotionally earned conclusion with all the affable digressiveness of a shaggy dog story, albeit one told by a once-great raconteur for whom this will be his last soliloquy of any real meaning. There is a great deal of melancholy here, but it’s offset by an acidic delight in the idiosyncrasies of its characters. The performances, without exception, are buoyant. Dano is the best he’s been since ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’, Weisz is pitch-perfect, Macqueen steals both of his scenes with the polish of a jewel thief absconding with a priceless diamond, and Caine and Keitel’s double act is a wondrous thing to behold. How to describe it? Imagine a Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau comedy reconceptualised by Lone Scherfig. Imagine, too, the best cinematic statement on ageing this side of ‘The Straight Story’. That’s ‘Youth’ for you – and don’t go thinking that the title is a bit of cheap irony. Sorrentino gives the explanation for it to one of the more subsidiary characters but the meaning is no less profound.
Wednesday, July 06, 2016
Those who know me will be aware of my attitude to Best Picture winners. It started the year that ‘Anti-Intellectualism: The Movie’ (or, as most people know it, ‘Forrest Gump’) walked off with the gong when anyone with the slightest claim to being a cineaste knew full well that was the year that ‘Pulp Fiction’ – love or loathe its creator – basically redefined American cinema, let alone ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Quiz Show’ filling out the list of nominees.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Best Picture winners I actually like. They just weren’t necessarily the best of their particular crop – often by a long chalk. Or they weren’t the film their director should have won for. Scorsese – the legend behind ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Raging Bull’, ‘The King of Comedy’, ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Aviator’ – finally got his gong for ‘The Departed’, an overlong and unfocused remake of a film that was so stylistically and structurally perfect it should have been left the hell alone.
(Let me put it this way: in 1941, ‘How Green Was My Valley’ won over, amongst others, ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Suspicion’. Yeah, ‘How Green…’ is good, but it’s not in the same ballpark as ‘Kane’ and ‘Suspicion’, and of all that year’s nominees, nothing touches ‘The Maltese Falcon’. You read that right: ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is better than ‘Citizen Kane’. Comments box is at the bottom of the article: be my guest.)
‘Spotlight’ isn’t the first “message” film to win Best Picture – scroll through the Wikipedia entry on Best Picture winners and count how many “war is hell” or “white man’s guilt” crop up – but it’s one of very few that approach their subject with restraint, intelligence and dignity. ‘Spotlight’ deserves every accolade that’s been lobbed in its direction, and its deserves them for many reasons, but its highest achievement is the dignity with which director Todd McCarthy imbues the thorniest of material.
The story it’s based on needs little recapping: newly appointed Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) tasks Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of the Spotlight investigative journalism team, with following up on an op-ed column about lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci)’s allegations that the actions of a paedophile priest were covered up by the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou). Robinson and his team – Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), overseen by Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) – painstakingly uncover evidence that it’s not one pederast priest in Boston whose crimes have been covered up, but close to 90. Working with survivors’ groups and counsellors, a bad decision from Robinson’s past comes home to roost: that he was given material years earlier that could have been the bedrock for a much earlier investigation, but failed to act on it.
Keaton’s performance is one of his best, the rigid façade of professional detachment barely slipping – even in a heated argument with Rezendes where the latter, shaken by the material they’re dealing with, urges Robinson to go to press early – and just smallest crack appearing when he finally admits to his complacency in not pursuing the story first time round; but the smallest crack is all you need. There’s a world of regret in his eyes and he seems to diminish, ever so slightly, in relation to the mise en scene.
The rest of the team have their individual moments of near-breaking-point, the most squirmy being Carroll’s when he realises that a “treatment centre” – a sort of halfway house where paedophile priests are sequestered – is just a block away from his house. From his children. The film could have spiralled into melodrama here, but McCarthy stages the scene observationally, letting the significance of Carroll’s discovery carry its own weight, and playing James’s response as helplessness rather than chest-beating outrage. Ditto Pfeiffer’s turmoil – everything reduces to a point of domestic banality where a recalcitrant dishwasher is the straw that breaks the journalist’s emotional equilibrium.
Mainly, though, McCarthy structures and styles the film as a procedural. Indeed, its unpretentious cinematography and sense of documentary realism are evocative of ’70s classics ‘The French Connection’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor’, except without the thriller elements. The set-piece where Rezendes races against time to requisition a file from the courthouse before the church’s legal eagles can bury it is the closest ‘Spotlight’ comes to an action scene. Mainly, it’s a film of people talking in various locations – anonymous rooms, utilitarian offices, coffee shops, rainy streets – and it’s never less than utterly compelling.
The script never shies from what Boston’s deviant priests have done – and not just Boston’s: a chilling end-credits crawl states the locations of church-sanction abuses uncovered subsequent to the Spotlight investigation; widespread is an understatement – but a human voice is always found and each survivor’s story is dignified by sympathetic performances and the bigger picture of lives lived in an ongoing struggle to define themselves by something other than that which was done to them.