Bad Barrels & Bystanders: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”


Few movies have portrayed journalism with such grounded realism and deep reverence as 2015 Academy Award winner Spotlight.  Though director Tom McCarthy paints a rather unglamorous portrait of the profession (the majority of reporting occurs either in the Boston Globe’s dreary manila beige offices or dimly lit basements haunted by the stench of dead rats), it’s clear he possesses a worshipful esteem for the occupation.  Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, Spotlight is a “tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” endlessly fascinated with the details of what today has become a dying craft: the poring over records, the digging up leads, the sifting through clips.  But this film is not simply for journalists who wistfully remember the days when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep (or longingly recall the whir of the printing press)- it’s for anyone who believes in the tremendous power of a few individuals to have a far-reaching impact.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead once said.  This subtly gripping tale proves true this sentiment.

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A first-rate newsroom drama based on real life events, Spotlight documents the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.  The year is 2001: the traditional newspaper has only just begun to compete with the internet but local publications like the Boston Globe are struggling to maintain their readership.  To boost sales and make their paper more relevant, the Globe brings in new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an unmarried man of the Jewish faith.  “What are you reading?” Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of Spotlight, the paper’s investigative division, asks when they meet for a business meeting over dinner and drinks.  “The Curse of the Bambino but, to be honest,” Baron confesses, “I’m not much of a baseball fan.”  In a predominantly Catholic city that devours peanuts at Red Sox games, Baron is an outsider to say the least.  But it is his status as newcomer that makes him willing to take on Boston’s mightiest, most formidable adversary: the Archdiocese.  After reading that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, potentially knew priest John Geoghan was molesting local children, Baron urges Spotlight to investigate.  

An ensemble of fine actors compose the Spotlight team: tough guy Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) typifies the determined persistence of the classic reporter as he tirelessly tracks down leads, sneaking into offices uninvited and enduring door after door slammed in his face.  Fellow staff writer Sacha Pfeiffer (a warm performance by Rachel McAdams) interviews victims while diligent reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) discovers whenever a priest was accused of abusing a child, the Archdiocese would officially say he was on “sick leave” and send him to a treatment center only to reassign him to another parish where he would surely resume his predatory ways.


As the group of journalists delve deeper, they begin to realize the sheer scope of what they’ve stumbled upon: the systematic abuse of children isn’t just limited to Boston-it goes to the heart of the Vatican itself.  What makes such rampant horror possible?  Creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiment Phillip Zambardo would argue these atrocities weren’t perpetrated by a few “bad apples” but the result of a bad barrel.  Lack of oversight, a complete absence of accountability: the Catholic Church created a precarious situation in which priests faced no repercussions for their actions and could therefore be seduced into abusing their power in the most despicable ways.  “When you’re from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” survivor and impassioned victims advocate Phil Saviano explains, “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal.  When he asks you to collect the hymnals, you feel special.  It’s like God asking for your help.”  

What’s chillingly disturbing about the Catholic Church scandal is not only the ways in which so-called “men of God” use the collar to prey on the helpless and vulnerable but the countless legal, political, and social institutions complicit in the cover up.  After all, if the abominable abuse of children was happening on such a grand scale, how did nobody know?  The Boston Globe comes to estimate there are nearly 90 offending priests in Boston alone.  By discreetly settling these abuse cases out of court, lawyers like handsome, smooth-talking Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) keep the Church’s disgraceful secrets hidden from public view (not to mention make a small fortune for themselves).  On a larger scale, police departments perpetuate the abuse by releasing offenders like Geoghan back into the hands of the Archdiocese rather than follow standard protocol and press criminal charges.  Even the Globe itself, we learn, is partly responsible.  The paper had been tipped to the existence of a scandal as far back as 1993 but turned down the opportunity to cover the story.  Why?  For the same reason families of victims didn’t speak out- they were afraid of taking on an organization as influential as the Archdiocese. 

The press, lawyers, police: all wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the conspiracy of silence that enables such monstrosities to continue.  Though Spotlight never indulges in the speechifying or grand-standing typical of a Hollywood drama of this material, it unwaveringly maintains a stance that is moral: not only are the perpetrators themselves culpable- loathsome men like Geoghan and their superiors like Cardinal Law- but, through our inaction, we bystanders are equally at fault.  As lawyer Garbedian sharply notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

The American Dream: Meaning & Materialism in “American Beauty”


Revisiting favorite films is one of my most cherished simple pleasures.  I delight in analyzing a film’s minute details: the bits of dialogue, the arrangements and sequences of scenes.  There’s something incredibly gratifying about breaking down a work of art and seeing how it works.

This week reexamined 1999 drama American Beauty.  Director Sam Mendes mercilessly satirizes the Burnhams, a “normal” American family who possesses every middle class luxury but lacks a meaningful sense of themselves and each other.  The film opens on Lester, a pathetic advertising executive who describes “jerking off” as the high point of his day.  The next 24 hours consist of his much younger and recently promoted boss telling him, in the most pseudo-kindhearted way, that he must fill out a detailed job description so the company (in typical corporatist fashion) can decide “who’s valuable and who’s dispensable.”


Life at home isn’t much better.  His high-strung real estate agent wife, Carolyn, uses her job as a convenient excuse to ignore him while their daughter, Jane, couldn’t despise either of them more.

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From a Marxist perspective, American Beauty reveals itself an outright condemnation of the American bourgeois.  Though the Burnhams have attained all the outward signposts of success-pruning shears with tastefully matching gardening clogs, a gorgeous two-story home with the quintessentially American white picket fence- both Lester and Carolyn find themselves trapped by the hopeless banality of their suburbia.  For them, conventional, consumeristic notions of affluence have failed to bring any sort of lasting satisfaction.  In fact, the accumulation of more and more things seems to demolish the possibility for genuine happiness and human connection all together.  In a poignant scene, we realize that Lester and Carolyn’s marriage is too far gone to be recovered. 

Uh, who’s car is that out front?” Carolyn asks irritated, pristinely manicured fingertips tapping on the door frame.

Mine.  1970 Pontiac Firebird.  It’s the car I always wanted and now I have it.  I rule!” Lester replies matter-of-factly.

Where’s the Camry?”

I traded it in.”

Shouldn’t you have consulted me first?”

Hm, let me think.  No, you never drove it.”

lester and carolyn

Soon the marital bickering becomes an invitation to intimacy: “Where’s Jane?” Carolyn asks, her distracted tone implying she’s only asking out of a sense of parental obligation rather than genuine concern.

Jane not home,” Lester replies in a caveman manner indicative of his return to a baser, more visceral need for sexual attention.  Carolyn looks confused, alarmed even (clearly they haven’t had any kind of physical contact, let alone flirtation, in a long time).

We have the house all to ourselves,” Lester says, alluringly lingering over every word as he moves besides her on the coach.  Carolyn, again, looks fearful.  “Christ Carolyn. When did you become so…joyless?” (the negation of the suffix rendering the absence of joy, the total lack of delight in their hollow, cardboard cut-out lives, all the more poignant).

Her eyes widen in a sad blend of shock and hurt.  “Joyless?  I’m not joyless.  There happens to be a lot about me that you don’t know, Mr. Smarty Man.”  (that she’s fucking the Real Estate King whose cheesy face is plastered on bus stops all over town, for instance.)

Whatever happened to that girl who used to fake seizures at frat parties when she got bored?  Who used to run up to the roof of our first apartment building to flash the traffic helicopters?  Have you completely forgotten about her?  Because I haven’t…” he leans in seductively.  

Recalling these past versions of herself, Carolyn chuckles as she leans against the coach.  Lester begins kissing her neck and, for a brief moment, we think there might be hope for this estranged couple.  But as Lester slowly caresses her neck, Carolyn turns her head: “Lester, you’re about to spill beer on the coach!”

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beer on couch #2

Always brilliant Annette Bening so precisely captures the complexity of Carolyn’s emotions at this moment: the terror at seeing her $4,000 pin-striped, Italian upholstered silk coach nearly ruined by a drop of beer; the disgust she feels with herself for caring so little for her husband and so much for a coach; and the aching regret she must live with knowing she spoiled their one chance at reconciliation forever. 

It’s just a couch!” Lester screams, outraged at his wife’s acquisitiveness.  

The fact that Carolyn is willing to tarnish such a rare moment of intimacy with her husband for something as superficial as a coach proves the distressing extent of her materialism: so completely preoccupied is she with objects that she forgets to contemplate the transcendent and spiritual.  All in all, this single exchange calls into question our idolization of the American dream.  Though we glorify wealth and stature as the foundational pillars of our national credo, their attainment leaves this couple desperate, unsatisfied, and deeply alone.  As professor Roy M. Anker so penetratingly observes, the Burnhams’s single-minded pursuit of material prosperity has kept them from beholding the “exquisite beauty” of the ordinary human world.

Erin Brockovich

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This 2000 biopic traces the real-life story of Erin Brockovich, a broke, uneducated single mother of 3 who happens to stumble on a major cover up by PG&E and ends up winning the largest direct-action lawsuit in United States history. Erin first happens upon a suspicious real estate case involving the Pacific Gas & Electric company while working as a legal assistant at a small firm. Outraged when she realizes they’ve been improperly disposing of toxic hexavalent chromium and poisoning the residents of Hinkley, the formerly desperate single mother uncovers her purpose: to punish the $28 billion corporation and serve justice.  

When the film opens, Erin is at her breaking point.  After fumbling through a job interview, Erin pulls out of her parking space only to be smashed by an E.R. doctor speeding through a red light.  Hoping to win a settlement for her injuries, Erin enlists the help of lawyer Ed Masry.  A few moments later we see Erin in a neck brace presenting her case to a courtroom: “I don’t have insurance so now I’m about $17,000 in debt,” she confesses, hoping to garner sympathy from the jury.  “Does your husband help you out?” the defense questions. “Which one?” Erin asks with the toughness of a woman who’s used to being betrayed. “There’s more than one?” he responds judgmentally, suggesting he’s both shocked and a little disgusted that’s she’s been married more than once.  Ed’s legal strategy to paint Erin as a hapless victim worthy of pity backfires shortly after when the defense lawyer accuses her of purposely hitting his client for money. “That asshole smashed in my fucking neck!” she screams back, defensive.  When Erin gives her profanity-laden reply, she seals her fate: the jury dismisses her as a white trash single mom looking for a meal ticket and hands in a not guilty verdict for the doctor.  

erin brockovich neckbrace

This is our first introduction to the troubling irony of the U.S. justice system: Erin, who in fact tells the truth, loses while the hot shot doctor in a Jaguar just walks away.  In this opening scene, Erin Brockovich suggests there is no retribution for lawbreakers (if they have money), certainly no justice for victims.  Most often, the little guy goes to jail and the titan corporation (or double-dealing politician or swindling stock broker) gets away with murder.

In a nation where democracy has been overrun by greed and the 1% have been divided from the 99%, Erin Brockovich resonates today more than ever.  At present, most Americans seriously doubt the integrity of our government and justice system.  What makes Erin Brockovich so appealing is that it restores our faith in justice and order: in the end, morality prevails and the residents of Hinkley win the lawsuit.  In a way, Erin represents all the people our justice system neglects-the minorities, the drug addicts, the single mothers- so it is all the more satisfying when she puts that system on trial and bulldozes it to the ground.  

Director Soderbergh’s southern California is desolate and barren much like the wasteland of corruption Erin encounters there.  A $28 billion corporation, PG&E proves a mammoth adversary, its Hinkley plant a menacing force that hovers above every shot.  Throughout the film, the monster corporation erects roadblock after roadblock to impede Erin from filing (and winning) her lawsuit: they intimidate her, drown her in paperwork, even threaten her at her home.

erin & ed

At its core, Erin Brockovich is an underdog’s tale. “It’s kind of like David and what’s his name,” Erin smirks with Roberts’ trademark winning smile. “Yeah,” Ed scoffs, “it’s kind of like what’s his name’s whole fucking family.”  But rather than resort to what film critic Todd McCarthy calls the “hackneyed movie hoopla of hooting and hollering” typical of such courtroom dramas, Erin Brockovich ends on an understated, even anti-climactic note.  There’s no closing court scene, no final showdown between Erin and PG&E.  Instead, the film concludes with Erin and her boyfriend George visiting Donna Jensen, one of their plaintiffs, on a quiet summer day.  While sipping lemonade on the porch, Erin reveals they’ve won the case: “I wanted to come here instead of calling because the judge came back with a number…he’s going to make them pay $333 million and he’s going to make them give 5 million of that to your family.”  

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Soderbergh’s choice to end the epic battle between Erin and PG&E in such a restrained way is effective for the same reason that stories are more persuasive than statistics.  Statistics are cold, hard, purely factual, impersonal; stories are individual.  If I tell you 1 in 5 children in the U.S. go to bed hungry, you might momentarily think to yourself, “Aw, that’s sad” but reflect no more about it.  But if I tell you the story of a specific child, a child named Eduardo for instance, who has to rummage in the trash cans at school for extra food, the suffering of hungry children will feel more real to you.  By focusing on one plaintiff, Donna, out of the hundreds who were poisoned and lied to by PG&E, Soderbergh renders the scene more poignant than if he had depicted more than one character.  Because of this clever stylistic choice, we fully grasp Donna’s pain…and her relief that it’s all over.

Despite its artistic sensibilities, Erin Brockovich never forgets to establish its mainstream appeal: often times, the film resorts to trying-too-hard, clever-sounding banter, funny (if predictable) sitcom-like jokes, and an unbelievably leggy Roberts in a short skirt and cut-too-low top. Leading film critic Roger Ebert, among others, have accused Erin Brockovich of focusing too intently on Roberts’ sex appeal, claiming “unwise wardrobe decisions position her somewhere between a character and distraction.”  

Sadly, the objection of women’s bodies for box office profits is nothing new-just look at any action movie trailer. Though Roberts’ aggressive cleavage is prominent in most shots, for me, her skimpy outfits contribute-not detract-from the development of her character. Erin Brockovich is a movie about a real woman, a working class woman who hilariously said “Roberts’ skirts weren’t short enough” upon seeing the premiere. However undignified, Roberts’ slutty attire maintains the film’s realism by capturing Erin the woman as she actually was. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for a penniless single mom to be strutting around in high-end heels and classy pencil skirts.

At the end of the day, Erin Brockovich may have flaws but it never fails to entertain-and inspire.

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