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The “Truth” About “Spotlight”

November 12, 2015

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When I recently did a Q&A with Topher Grace for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, the 37-year-old actor told me his favorite movie growing up was All the President’s Men (before you start doing the math, he saw it in high school when he was studying Watergate). So he was thrilled to co-star with Robert Redford, aka ATPM‘s Bob Woodward, in another movie about journalists investigating Presidential wrongdoing: Truth. But the true descendant of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 Washington Post-set thriller isn’t the tale of Dan Rather (Redford) and his Dubya-related downfall. Instead, it’s Spotlight, a riveting account of how a small team of Boston Globe reporters exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of its sexual-abuse scandal.

It’s telling that both these movies are period pieces: Spotlight is set in 2001-2, and Truth takes place in 2004. Those dates may not seem so long ago, but in journalistic terms, that was the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, before budget cuts and unpaid bloggers combined to help eviscerate the staffs of too many of this nation’s news-gathering operations. Spotlight is the inside story of how the Globe got it right: Led by editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton, every bit as good here as he was in Birdman—or Ron Howard’s underrated 1994 newsroom drama The Paper, for that matter), a tight squad of reporters use notepads and good, old-fashioned shoe leather to chase down victims, abusers and members of the church hierarchy who enabled this moral cancer to spread throughout its body. Despite pressure from higher-ups and competition from the cross-town Herald, they take their time and make sure they have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth before going to press.

In another parallel to All the President’s Men, one of the Globe‘s editors is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), the son of the Post honcho portrayed so memorably by Jason Robards. Surprisingly, Jr. (who recently wrote a splendid biography of Ted Williams) is depicted as a skeptic who doubted the newsworthiness of the abuse-scandal story until late in the game. Liev Schreiber, who plays a victim of a Boston pedophile priest on Ray Donovan, shines as Marty Baron, the Jewish out-of-towner who takes over as boss at the Globe and encourages the probe, ignoring threats from Beantown’s aptly named Cardinal Law (Blue Bloods‘ Len Cariou).

While Spotlight‘s entire ensemble—which includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James as Globe reporters and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci as a victims’ advocate—the true star is writer-director Tom McCarthy. He’s an actor who starred in the journalism-themed final season of The Wire and has made some very good films, like The Visitor, which earned an Oscar nod for Richard Jenkins (who contributes a vocal cameo as a key source). Here he channels the just-the-facts spirit of Pakula as well as other great American directors of the ’70s like Sidney Lumet.

Truth‘s cast is almost as flawless as Spotlight‘s, with the notable exception of Redford, who never disappears into the character of Dan Rather. It’s fine that he doesn’t try to do a vocal or physical imitation of the famously folksy Texan, but he just seems to be playing Robert Redford. The always-radiant Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, excels as Mary Mapes, the producer who was duped into accepting fake documents meant to prove that George W. Bush had gone AWOL during his Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Grace and Dennis Quaid, who previously co-starred together in both Traffic and In Good Company, display great chemistry as odd-couple members of the CBS reporting team, and there’s stellar work from Stacy Keach (as the shaky source) and Bruce Greenwood (as CBS News president Andrew Heyward) as well. Ultimately, however, Truth adds up to a footnote in journalistic history; first-time director James Vanderbilt, working from his own screenplay, simply doesn’t make the case that this story merits a feature film, rather than a shrug. Spotlight, on the other hand, leaves you devastated. And that’s the truth.

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