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SPOTLIGHT

The uninspired title might suggest an old-fashioned backstage theatre story, but “Spotlight” is actually one of the best real-life tales of investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men.” It focuses on the 2001-2002 Boston Globe series, in the paper’s titular section, detailing the systemic cover-up of clerical child abuse that had been ongoing in the city’s Catholic diocese for many years—the opening salvo in a scandal within the wider Church that continues to the present day. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, working with his co-scripter Josh Singer, has fashioned a riveting account of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, and he presents it in a spare, straightforward style that lets the sheer power of the narrative speak unencumbered by undue fuss or cinematic finery, except for superb ensemble acting and craftsmanship that serves the story unostentatiously.

That story is told from the perspective of the Spotlight staff—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his reporters, volatile Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), dedicated Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and detail-oriented Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James)—all operating under the scrutiny of assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery). It’s suggested to them by newly-appointed editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), an outsider from Miami (who also happens to be Jewish in the overwhelmingly Catholic city), that they look more deeply into a recent story about a defrocked priest charged with numerous counts of molesting young boys during his years as a cleric.

The team takes up the work methodically, scouring past issues of their own newspaper for half-buried stories of alleged clerical abuse that weren’t energetically followed up, as well as diocesan registers that will reveal priests who’d been shifted from parish to parish or temporarily sidelined for unspecified reasons. Meanwhile a researcher studying pedophile priests is contacted for general information; Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the head of a local survivors’ group, is invited to share his files with the staff; and Rezendes doggedly tries to get excitable lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who’s representing a group of victims, to persuade some of his clients to cooperate and help get sealed court documents made public. The indefatigable Pfeiffer will eventually secure poignant testimony from one victim, Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), and even a startling admission from one defrocked priest, Ronald Paquin (Richard O’Rourke). And Robinson contacts a couple of bigwigs in the legal community—Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) and Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan)—who may have helped the diocese to cover up the scandal.

Meanwhile the city and church establishment pressure the paper to tread carefully. Baron finds himself slyly courted and gently threatened by Bernard Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), while Robinson is approached by wheeler-dealer lay Catholic leader Peter Conley (Paul Guilfoyle) to consider his duty to the city and the church and the damage an expose might do to both. Nonetheless the investigation pushes on, even after a pause in the aftermath 9/11, and the first story based on it hit the stands early in 2002, with historic results.

McCarthy and Singer have weaved all these threads together skillfully, giving the overall narrative a sense of urgency without sacrificing clarity, and the cast respond with performances that add texture without going overboard. Ruffalo and Tucci are the most extroverted of the lot, the former bristling with anger as more and more evidence is collected and the latter offering a sharp-edged brand of idealism tinged with worldly wisdom. Keaton, fresh from his career-restoring turn in “Birdman,” presents a far mellower persona this time around as the veteran head of the Spotlight staff, while McAdams submerges her natural attractiveness to play a far plainer woman than usual and James likewise opts for understatement. There are more volatile turns from Guilfoyle as the oily, glad-handing Conley, Sheridan as the conflicted Sullivan, and Crudup as the silkily duplicitous MacLeish, as well as from Huff and Creighton as victims struggling to achieve long-delayed justice. But perhaps the most impressive performance of all comes from Schreiber, whose dry, understated turn as the recently-arrived editor-in-chief is a far cry from his more colorful one as Boris Spassky in “Pawn Sacrifice.”

Just as the cast avoid flamboyance, so do the craftsman. Stephen Carter’s production design is simple and stark, and the art direction (Michaela Cheyne), sets (Shane Vieau, William Cheng and John MacNeil) and costumes (Wendy Clark) follow the same pattern—as does Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography, which deliberately eschews the sinister gloss that Gordon Willis brought to “All the President’s Men” in favor of a more ascetic, gritty look. Howard Shore’s music is so unobtrusive that you might not even notice it.

“Spotlight” is, of course, a love letter to traditional investigative journalism—there’s plenty of nostalgia in the shots of papers rolling off presses and being plopped on porches. But it doesn’t simply glorify the Globe reporters or the paper they work for; after all, until prodded by Baron, they had blithely treated what was going on as the city as a whole did, with something very like indifference. When roused to action, however, they did their job well, in the process setting off shock waves that have had a profound effect on both state and church.

SUFFRAGETTE

Blending history with fiction, “Suffragette” portrays the struggle for women’s voting rights in early twentieth-century England through the experiences of one activist, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a downtrodden laundry worker only reluctantly drafted into the movement spearheaded by Emmeline Pankhurst (Maryl Streep), the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Once committed to the cause, however, Watts finds herself involved in all the group’s major actions and suffering all of the humiliations the authorities can muster in response.

Watts, of course, is a literary contrivance fashioned by screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron to represent the suffrage drive as a whole—not so much a composite character as an invented one onto which the myriad experiences of various Union members can be conflated for dramatic (or melodramatic) effect. The effect is of a weepy women’s movie from the 1940s presented against a too-thinly-drawn period background of political agitation and official repression.

So long as one is willing to accept the overall conceit, however, the film is a decent one in the
Masterpiece Theatre mode. It’s powered by the performance of Mulligan, who brings considerable shading to Watts, introduced as the line forewoman at a laundry run by a brutal—and lascivious–taskmaster (Geoff Bell). Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) works there as well, and both of them look forward to the evenings when they can repair to their dismal home and play with their adorable young son George (Adam Michael Dodd).

Maud, who’s disgusted by the boss’ nasty treatment of his female employees (especially the younger ones), has an awakening when she witnesses some suffragettes, or “Panks,” breaking windows at a department store as a form of protest. The vandals include Emily Davison (Natalie Press) and Maud’s own co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who soon recruiting her into their ranks. And when Violet induces Watts to accompany her when she testifies about conditions at the laundry before a commission headed by Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), circumstances require Maud to speak for the group instead. The experience will radicalize her, since the prime minister chooses to block the move to legislate female suffrage.

From this point the movement’s work is dramatized through Watts’s eyes. On the employment front, she’ll lose her job. Domestically, her husband will throw her out, prohibit her from seeing George, and finally give the boy out for adoption. But while grieving the loss of her family, Maud finds another in her fellow activists—Violet, Emily, druggist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and of course Pankhurst, who’s been driven into hiding but nonetheless makes occasional public appearances to rally the troops. The group grows increasingly militant, employing small bombs in postal boxes and engaging in demonstrations that bring out the worst in the police, who show no compunction about using physical violence against the women.

The official reaction to the WSPU’s operations also includes a surveillance operation, including what were then state-of-the-art security cameras, directed by brooding anti-terrorist expert Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). He’ll try to induce Watts to become a snitch, but her refusal will ultimately result in imprisonment and, when she joins other incarcerated suffragettes in a hunger strike, cruel forced feeding. Eventually Maud will be a key player in two of the Pankhurst organization’s most notorious plots—the bombing of Lloyd George’s summer house, and Davison’s attention-grabbing act of self-sacrifice at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

From the historical point of view, “Suffragettes” represents something akin to a medley of the WSPU’s “greatest hits” from the years 1912-13. It also offers a somewhat misleading postscript before the final credits, suggesting that the eventual legalization of female suffrage in Britain came about as a result of Pankurst’s agitation. Actually the country’s experiences in World War I had considerably more to do with it than is suggested here. The decision to situate all the episodes around a single woman is also a problem; it may serve to focus audience empathy, but also reduces everyone around her to the status of servant to her suffering. It’s too heavy a price to pay to achieve dramatic unity, particularly when the contributions of Gavron and editor Barney Pilling come across as earnest and workmanlike rather than inspired.

Nevertheless Mulligan again exhibits her prodigious gifts, and Carter brings gumption to the part of a dedicated fighter; Whishaw, moreover, adds a degree of nuance to the role of a husband trapped in the belief system of his era, though Gleeson can’t do much with a character whose attitudes are never really explored. The remainder of the supporting cast is adequate, with Streep’s cameos adding little to the mix beyond a general sense of determined nobility. Alice Normington’s production design achieves strong period verisimilitude, as do Barbara Herman-Skelding’s sets and Jane Petrie’s costumes, while Edu Grau’s dusky widescreen images also contribute to the early twentieth-century ambience. It doesn’t seem, however, that the film much excited the imagination of Alexandre Desplat; the score is one of his most forgettable. “Suffragette” pounds home its point at the close by listing chronologically the progress of female suffrage across the globe. It’s an effective if obvious device.

Incidentally, if you’d prefer a straightforward documentary treatment of the struggle for women’s rights in England, check out Amanda Vickery’s BBC mini-series “Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power,” available on DVD as an RLJ Athena release—an impassioned but reliable presentation, unencumbered by this film’s melodramatic inventions.