‘Spotlight’ review

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. So I thought I’d write a review of it, my first film review in years (I used to write them all the time).

If you’re not familiar with the premise, it focuses on the Spotlight investigative reporting unit at The Boston Globe (reporters Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer and their editor, Walter V. Robinson) and its investigation of allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and helped uncover wider abuse on a global scale.

Journalists of my generation arguably don’t (didn’t!) have a “newspaper film” for our era. There’s “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men,” both far removed (socially, culturally and technologically) from our current time. Even “Spotlight,” taking place 13-14 years ago in 2001-02, feels slightly dated, a definite product of its time (which is an observation, not a quality judgment; it could be called a period piece).

The organic growth of the investigation, done at the urging of new editor Marty Baron (who’s now leading The Washington Post), is something amazing to watch. It’s a testament to the menial work involved in deep digging; in one scene, the team works through a spreadsheet line by line, collecting what they need. Old newspaper clips are dug out of the archives, doors are knocked on, sources are met in coffee shops and parks and offices, and legal documents are sifted through. When the final story lands on doorsteps, you know where it came from.

And the story is what’s essential here. The focus is always on the story. We get to know the reporters and editors (an assortment of outsiders with a fresh perspective, lapsed Catholic Boston-breds and veterans who maybe should have pursued this story sooner). We appreciate their motivations and feel for them as they hit roadblocks and try to wade through paperwork and finesse sources. But they are not the focus; it is the story. And the actors (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Brian d’Arcy James play the Globe reporters/editors) successfully convey the motivations of the staff without making it all about them.

Finally, everything feels earned. When there is an outburst, it springs from genuine, earned frustration, not self-righteous grandstanding. The obstacles to the story are not death threats or bricks through windows, but bureaucratic red tape and slammed doors. It feels raw and earthy. The basement Spotlight newsroom feels lived in, the journalists dress like they don’t care how they look (and why would they?) and the city of Boston feels organic and alive. The abuse that is the focus of the investigation is like a horde of cockroaches that scatters when you turn on the light or lift up the rug. There is no sudden horrific epiphany or silver bullet, just confirmations of what these people had already figured out for themselves but needed proof of to include in the report.

This is the kind of film that necessitates discussion and reflection. We may not see another film about journalism this good for a long, long time.

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Commentators must have standards, too

I’ve always loved movies — I saw “The Little Mermaid” in the cinema when I was about 2 and a half, and the rest is history. In middle school and high school, I wrote reviews for my parents and other family members to read and occasionally for my high school newspaper. In my 8th grade gifted class, we had to interview a professional working in our area of interest. I contacted Bob Butler, the film critic at the Kansas City Star, and asked him about his work. He replied in great detail and showed good humor toward my teenage-minded questions, and to this day I remember that and appreciate the time he took replying to me.

Much of my journalism experience up to this point relates to opinion writing and commentary. I wrote a column for my high school paper, served as the opinion editor and wrote and assigned staff editorials as editor-in-chief. My first job at the University Daily Kansan involved writing book reviews for Jayplay. I spent my sophomore year as a long-distance columnist before manning the opinion desk for a semester and working on the editorial board for an additional two semesters after that.

The big misconception I see about opinion writing? It’s the idea that, because they’re presenting an “opinion,” a person can say or write whatever they want. Oh, no no no no. The top-quality columns and editorials will involve just as much reporting and research as any straight news story, and it’s these writers’ knowledge of what they’re discussing that makes their voices so critical.

Bearing that in mind, I was surprised to read yesterday on Deadline that Movieline had sacked Elvis Mitchell over an error in his review of the film “Source Code.” According to Nikki Finke’s Deadline article, the studio screened a final cut of “Code” for Mitchell to review. Yet in his review, Mitchell took issue with Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe in the film — an act that director Duncan Jones said on Twitter had been included in a draft of the script but was cut for the actual film. Yet it ended up in Mitchell’s review. Finke wrote that Movieline formally asked Mitchell to explain himself, and eventually terminated his contract entirely, after he’d worked there a scant three months.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mitchell, just know that he’s no small-timer; before joining Movieline, he worked as a critic for the New York Times, appeared on television and is a fixture on the festivals circuit. For a seasoned critic like him to make that kind of a mistake is almost … scandalous.

The reader comments accompanying the Deadline article are all over the map. Some speculate that he left the film early, or didn’t see it at all, and based his review on a copy of the script he had. Others suggest that he read the script and saw the film, and just got confused. Still others defend him and suggest that we don’t know the whole story. Whether they support him, many commenters suggest that he might be given a pass were it not for other erratic behavior, such as backing out of working on Roger Ebert’s review show and a development program with Columbia Pictures, both missteps that Finke discusses in her article.

Ultimately the only person who knows exactly how or why the discrepancy occurred is Mitchell. Not being in the theater with him, it’s not my place to say that he saw the film or not, because obviously I can’t know. But this episode, which brought down a highly respected film critic, should be a cautionary tale for opinion writers, a lesson telling them to take care and make sure they get their facts right. Film critics — including Roger Ebert — make mistakes all the time when it comes to characters’ names and relationships and even some basic plot points. What probably cost Mitchell was that his error was made not when describing the film, but when judging it. A troublesome mistake, clearly, but one that all aspiring opinion writers should be wary of.

Waiting for “Waiting for Superman”

Just about the only thing I regret about living in England is the lack of access to many specialized or independent films that I’d be able to see at home. Case in point: “Waiting for Superman.”

I had a feeling that, whether I ended up agreeing with its thesis, “Superman” would be an interesting documentary to see, as it tackles a domestic issue of importance to me: public education and the voucher system.

The film follows a collection of children and their parents as they try to gain admission to quality charter schools via a lottery system. The assumption is that admission will give the children an academic leg up, while getting shut out will be a crippling blow. As is usually the case in social commentary such as this, the dark cloud of income inequality hangs over the whole affair.

In addition to following the children’s narratives, the documentary interviews various prominent figures in education, including Geoff Canada, whose “from birth” method and creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone are success stories of the system, and Michelle Rhee, who’s been tasked with fixing Washington D.C.’s school system.

In a piece for GOOD, John Morrow called “Superman” overly simplistic. In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman praised it lavishly.

So who’s right? I can’t say. Much of Morrow’s criticism is that the film (directed by Andrew Guggenheim, who did “An Inconvenient Truth”) paints charter schools with a broad, positive brush, ignoring the statistical evidence that most charter schools are not, in fact, “outstanding.” Having written a 4,200-word research project on the voucher system for my honors American politics class a few years ago, I can say my findings corroborate this. Morrow also criticizes the film for using broad terms such as “great teaching” without confirming what, exactly, that entails.

Friedman, meanwhile, lauds the film for pointing out that it’s everyday men and women, working out of genuine interest and love of their communities, along with great teachers and involved parents, who make a school outstanding. But didn’t we know that already?

I freely admit, despite having received an excellent public education myself, to being skeptical and unnerved with the direction that American education is heading. I’m only 23, but even I notice gaps in knowledge — appalling grammar, ignorance of the scientific method, poor math skills, little to no knowledge of history, civics or geography — that weren’t as noticeable during my school days. Thanks to budget cuts, forget art, music, media and technical education. So what’s left? And other than supplementary education, I think a lot of problems are down to inefficiency and methodology more than funding. I used to think of private schools as the realm of snobs and homeschooling as repressive and backward. Now both look like viable options. But again, what about children like those depicted in “Superman”? Other than charter schools, what can be done for them?

I probably won’t be able to see this film until it’s on DVD. But maybe you should try to see it, even if you end up disagreeing with it.

Into “The Pacific”

If you have HBO and aren’t yet watching “The Pacific,” I highly recommend it.

I watched “Band of Brothers” on HBO when it aired eight and a half years ago, right before the Sept. 11 attacks. I remember it feeling larger than life, sprawling and “important.” On the other hand, I also remember losing track of the characters and having a difficult time forging connections with many of them, just because of how many of them there were.

“The Pacific” succeeds in that area where “Brothers” faltered. Rather than following an entire company, “The Pacific” focuses on three specific men: Robert Leckie, John Basilone and Eugene Sledge. That makes it feel much more intimate and personal. It’s easier to become engaged in and committed to the three men, who are all interesting and unique in their own ways.

It also helps that the three leads (James Badge Dale, Jon Seda and Joe Mazzello, respectively) have all so far been pretty outstanding. You’ll probably find yourself favoring one guy above the others, and for me it’s Badge Dale, whose Leckie is smart, cynical, ornery, just a shade less than insane and deeply poetic. (For my film geek friends, Badge Dale played a significant role in the elevator scene at the end of “The Departed;” yes, that elevator scene. He’s also quite cute and may follow me on Twitter at any time.)

Speaking of film geekery, if Joe Mazzello looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he played little Timmy in “Jurassic Park” back in 1993. And for my fellow “Eurotrip” lovers (it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures), try to spot Jacob Pitts, aka Cooper, among the Marines in Leckie’s company.

The series is about halfway done. Guadalcanal, Melbourne, Cape Gloucester and Pavuvu are behind, while Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the endgame are ahead. Even knowing what happens, who lives and who dies, I’m eager to see how it unfolds.

I make no secret of being a military history enthusiast, and WWII in particular. It’s something I can share with my dad — we’re watching the show together — and I believe it’s something people my age know appallingly little about. In the end, though, I don’t read and watch WWII material out of patriotism or duty or anything like that. At its heart, it’s a series of great stories that need to and deserve to be told. And I’m a sucker for good stories.

“The Pacific” airs new episodes at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT Sundays on HBO. Older episodes are available on demand, and repeats air throughout the week. April 11 will be the show’s fifth episode of 10. Here’s the official trailer from HBO.

If you’re interested in reading more about the individual men, you can pick up “Helmet For My Pillow,” written by Leckie, and “With The Old Breed,” written by Sledge. Right now I’m reading “Guadalcanal Diary,” by embedded journalist Richard Tregaskis. There’s plenty of good reading material out there.

Semper fi.

Oscars like it’s 1997

It’s my favorite time of year: Oscar season.

It’s already hard not to think of 1997 when examining the slate of 2009 Oscar contenders, mostly because James Cameron is back on the radar with Avatar. (Full disclosure: If you haven’t seen Avatar yet, go see it. Now. That means you, Mother.)

But when I saw that The Hurt Locker had won the National Society of Films Critics prize for Best Picture, I realized that each of the “big five” films this year has an uncanny pairing of sorts to a 1997 Best Picture nominee. While there are 10 slots this year for Best Picture, five really stand out: Up in the Air, Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious and Inglourious Basterds.

1. Up in the Air = As Good As It Gets

Up in the Air and As Good As It Gets are both fairly intimate character studies and actors’ films. There’s no CGI spectacle in either of them, and both received recognition mostly for their acting. George Clooney looks very likely to win Best Actor, similar to how Jack Nicholson won for As Good As It Gets. While Up in the Air has no lead actress (Helen Hunt won for As Good As It Gets), Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga will likely receive supporting nominations. The Best Actress prize is likely to be replaced with an Adapted Screenplay prize for Up in the Air.

2. Precious = Good Will Hunting

Precious, like Good Will Hunting, is a rise-above-adversity story, detailing the life of a struggling young person who receives support and guidance from mentors and works to improve her lot in life. Similar to how Good Will Hunting received a Best Supporting Actor prize for Robin Williams, Precious’ marquee award will likely be Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique. It’s unlikely to win the Adapted Screenplay award, though (Good Will Hunting had a second win for Original Screenplay).

3. Inglourious Basterds = The Full Monty

Inglourious Basterds is fabulous, beautifully done and brilliant. It’s also bawdy, bent and perverse, which makes it a good soul mate for The Full Monty, another blackish comedy that was beloved but doomed to play as an also-ran. The Full Monty took home an Oscar for Best Score, and Inglourious Basterds looks likely to win Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz and possibly Original Screenplay for Quentin Tarantino.

4. The Hurt Locker = L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential was probably the best film of 1997, just like The Hurt Locker was probably the best film of 2009. Both received numerous critics’ prizes, and both had comparatively low grosses at the box office. L.A. Confidential had only about $30 million going into Oscar season (it grossed about double that during the winter/spring awards season) and The Hurt Locker grossed only about $12 million during its theatrical run (Summit might re-release it in a few cities in late January or February for Oscar-campaigning purposes). Yet despite its critical success, L.A. Confidential managed to win only two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Hurt Locker seems likely to take home Best Editing and possibly even Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow (making her the first woman to win the prize). But its weak theatrical run looks likely to hamstring it when it comes to the big win.

5. Avatar = Titanic

This isn’t just because both are James Cameron films. Avatar, like Titanic, is getting too big to be ignored. It also has been mostly passed over for early critics’ prizes and looks likely to win the lion’s share of technical awards. Titanic won Best Picture (and Best Director) without winning an acting award (it was nominated for two) or even being nominated for Original Screenplay. Avatar is likely to face the same hurdles (no Best Picture winner has ever taken the prize with no acting or screenplay nominations). Most of the major awards (acting, screenplays, possibly editing and director) will go to other films, just like in 1997. But it’s still the biggest thing out there now, like Titanic was, and it’s not slowing down.

Spooky, isn’t it?