People often ask me why I’ve spent so much time in Boston over the years. They usually follow up by asking why I haven’t moved there yet (to which I usually reply “Do you have a high-paying job waiting for me up there?”) And the distinct intimation that I have a clandestine wife and kids stowed away in Harvard Square always hovers in the air as well. For the last sixteen odd years, my serious answer to that first question has largely involved my long-term attendance at the Annual Boston 24-Hour Science Fiction Marathon, a weekend long haven for cinematic junkies held every Presidents’ Day weekend. And since 2004, it’s also included extended summer sojourns that served as escapes from and were financed by my former career as a High School English Teacher.
But the real why’s behind those answers stretch back much farther and burrow much deeper. My love affair with the Commonwealth began on Saturday August 13th, 1988 while watching the Red Sox lay a 16-4 drubbing on the Detroit Tigers, a win that brought their American League record home winning streak to 25 games. Appropriately enough, that winning streak ended the day after I became a fan, but for one reason or another, even though I had been an Oakland A’s fan before (shudder….man the things that a youthful Mark McGwire fanship can do to a guy), I saw something that day in the Olde Towne Team that completely hooked me.
Maybe that something was the harmonious siren song of past glories and abject despair that emanated from Yawkey Way from 1918 until 2004. Following that haunting song straight into the cliffs of epic collapses and late season choke jobs seemed like somewhat of a badge of honor for an impressionable youth like yours truly, the prospect of groggily repeating the key numbers of Sox lore in the aftermath (“1918, 1946, 1967, 1975, 1978, nineteen….eighty….six….”) akin to passing along secrets of near Kabbalistic import to those landlocked observers who chose not to dip their toes in the mad seas populated by monsters like the Great and Powerful Buckyfuckingdent. As I once noted to a minister friend, I absorbed more Catholic guilt in nine years of Lutheran grade school than in four years of Catholic high school; the profound sense of puritanical suffering inherent in Red Sox fandom merely served as a further conduit to a psychological country I already knew well.
But shame, guilt, and Bill Buckner weren’t the only allure that Red Sox Nation (although we didn’t call it that before the marketing and branding blitz that arrived with the current ownership group) held for me. There was also the deeply embedded sense of tradition. In that most tradition-centric of major American sports, the Red Sox stood out as a historian’s dream. Sure, they were the last team to integrate (the immortal Pumpsie Green and his .246 career batting average), they always seemed to build lackluster teams around transcendent players (Ted, Yaz, Roger, Pedro), and even when they fielded a monster squad they ended up running into an even more formidable opponent (see that ’75 series against the Big Red Machine.) But experiencing these failures smack dab in the middle of the birthplace of America, in a city that refused to abandon its strong melting pot ethos and ethnic enclaves while still clinging to the legacy power of the Boston Brahmins….that backdrop seemed to imbue those epic collapses with a sense of much greater importance. This was the team that rejected the cookie cutter multi-purpose stadiums of the ‘60s and ‘70s in order to maintain the mystique of the “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” (as Updike famously put it) that is Fenway Park. The clean, classic simplicity of the uniforms also carried a certain timelessness, a continuum along which fans of all generations could plant their flags. They were much better than those damn Yankee pinstripes, which always resembled the conservative suits endemic of the button down, corporate philosophy of the New York dynasty.
And the Sox were the most literary team in all of baseball, maybe even in all of sports! To a kid who always read at an advanced level and was a voracious consumer of literature of all stripes, this was a familiar language. Baseball writers were more likely to quote Samuel Johnson and Ernest Hemingway than their more workmanlike peers, and the Sox drew erudite scribes to them like no other team. Esteemed mainstream authors loved to write about them (see that aforementioned Updike piece, a chronicle of Ted Williams’s last home game.) After all, this was a team steeped in pathos and tragedy, doomed to a Fitzgeraldian purgatory of stretching out their arms toward the green light of an always unreachable championship…or at least they were fertile ground on which authors could plant the seeds of such a mythos. At times, it became hard to discern the difference. It’s much more romantic of a notion to believe that your team is fated to Sisyphean torture than to admit that alienating minority players for decades, lowballing star players, and employing a Cro-Magnon team building philosophy that only zoomed into present day reality in 2002 is the reason that no championship banners were raised in the Fens for 86 years.
I’ve been talking a lot about the Red Sox, and some of you are probably wondering when I’m going to get around to the film that this essay is supposed to center around. But the Sox are Boston, and everything attractive about them has also been why I’ve loved the city for so long. It’s hyper-traditional like few other modern American metropolises, yet the collegiate atmosphere lends it a sense of ever-renewing progressivism and intellectual heft. Visiting Boston always feels mentally stimulating, even as it always remains familiar on many levels. And I love that, because (to steal the Kierkegaard quote used to great effect in Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter) life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
This fall has seen a cinematic referendum of sorts on Boston’s long-standing romance with tradition, and on the dark side of that affair. Scott Cooper’s Black Mass presents a scathing examination of Whitey Bulger’s South Boston criminal empire, much of which was enabled by fellow Southie boy and FBI agent John Connolly and the blind eye he turned to the carnage around him. In The Departed, Jack Nicholson’s Bulger surrogate carries a wild charisma which papers over many of his sins, but Johnny Depp’s steely-eyed Whitey is a monstrous ethical vacuum, the rascally kid from the down the street turned murderous sociopath. Black Mass may be a biopic of a criminal life, but its larger portrait is one of the system (both formalized and complicit) that enabled one man to maintain his empire for decades. In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, Whitey’s State Senator brother Billy preaches the good gospel of community and tradition at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, his speech ultimately serving as voiceover for the images of his brother looming on the sidewalk, graft and murder hiding in plain sight, protected by a conspiracy of silence that owes as much to Boston’s insular history as it does to a shotgun and a bribe.
That conspiracy is writ large in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, albeit in service to a more devastating crime that knows no romanticism in the popular consciousness. Outside of his nascent directing career, McCarthy is best known to many as a character actor extraordinaire. One of his signature roles has been that of Baltimore Sun serial fabricator Scott Templeton in the final season of The Wire, so it’s both deliciously ironic and wholly appropriate that his latest directorial effort is a paean to the power of old school, traditional journalism (and to the art of getting it right, as they say) and how, in the form of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation team, it blew apart the long term sexual abuse cover-up by the Catholic Diocese in Boston.
This time of year brings out award bait films like wolves stalking their prey, so it’s natural to look at a SERIOUS ISSUES offering like Spotlight with some measure of skepticism. Dramatic recreations of well-known historical events often become rote exercises in repetition, but what McCarthy and his team achieve here is altogether compelling and absorbing, a slow burn thriller whose awful power eventually envelops the viewer, no matter the previous knowledge they might have of the case’s finer details.
Much of that power is derived from the murderer’s row of a cast that McCarthy has assembled. Mark Ruffalo shines as the dogged, mildly obsessive Mike Rezendes, whose idealistic determination proves to be the heart and soul of Spotlight’s efforts to expose the church’s crimes. Ruffalo’s charm has always laid in his everyman demeanor; he’s handsome enough to flirt with leading man credibility, but an audience never imagines him jetting off to an Italian villa in his spare time ala George Clooney. And he’s used this sly charm to great effect, whether in big budget fare like The Avengers or in the slew of indies in which he essays genial hipsters with wit and grace. The nearest corollary to his work in Spotlight is his turn as Dave Toschi in David Fincher’s Zodiac, another lonely man consumed by a labyrinthine investigation. In both, he submerges his charm beneath a schlubby veneer, but he ends up being one of the most likeable, compassionate characters on the screen. He lends Rezendes a childlike vulnerability tempered by a righteous rage that explodes in a climactic scene in which he cuts through Globe politics and protocol to remind his colleagues that “they (the church) did this to kids”; that everyman quality allows him to serve as audience surrogate, and the effect here is devastating.
Ruffalo and his fellow castmates are greatly abetted by McCarthy and DP Masanobu Takayanagi’s decision to work in a subdued visual style, allowing the performances to stretch out and breathe. Liev Schreiber usually underplays roles to great effect, but his turn here as new Editor in Chief Marty Baron is an outstanding display of internalization. He’s arguably the most mild-mannered character in the film, but in defiance of the charismatic hero archetype, he ends up being the prime mover behind the search for justice. Rachel McAdams has flashed a wide-eyed, youthful innocence in many of her roles, a trait that greatly benefits her work as Sacha Pfeiffer, whose reckoning with her heavily Catholic upbringing slowly builds to a quietly heartbreaking scene in which her deeply religious grandmother first reads the Spotlight expose. And while John Slattery’s Ben Bradlee Jr. begins the film as a spiritual brother to Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, the conflicted and pragmatic motivations that the actor shades the character with lend him a great sense of gravitas and sympathy.
Michael Keaton’s work as Spotlight chief “Robby” Robinson is one of the most intriguing facets of the film. Tim Burton once noted that he cast Keaton as Batman in part because of the look in his eyes, that manic energy that could outclass more physically imposing candidates for the role. And Keaton has excelled over the years playing loose cannons; much of the appeal of his comeback role in Birdman laid in the interior conflict between seething anger and self-control within Riggan Thomson. Which makes his turn in Spotlight such a multi-layered, almost hypnotic performance. While Ruffalo gets the emotional outbursts and nervous tics, Keaton is forced to be the voice of reason, the analytically minded commander of his crew. As a result, even though he’s given less flashy, actorly moments, the quiet intensity in those eyes is still there throughout. When he finally has to put pressure on a longtime lawyer friend to name names, and especially when he realizes that he muffed the handling of key case information while a novice Metro editor years before, the panoply of his subdued emotions is as impressive and moving as what he’s displayed in much showier roles.
The presence of the 9/11 terror attacks three quarters of the way through the film provides a historically accurate speed bump for the Spotlight investigation, but it also serves as a large-scale metaphor for the film’s central message, which is also David Simon’s mission in The Wire: the failure of institutions. As one sexual abuse victim testifies early in the film, so many of his fellow victims came from poor, dysfunctional families that the attention paid to them by the church seemed an oasis in a life of pain. The annihilation of that faith in God’s foot soldiers drives the victims into lives dominated by drug abuse, alcoholism, and deep depression. The world’s nominal force for good is not even strong enough to root out the evil within. In the years following 9/11, the steadily eroding faith in public institutions that gained major momentum at the conclusion of the Nixon years reached peak mode with the revelations of mishandled intelligence, ghost WMDs in Iraq, torture programs in distant lands, cataclysmic malfeasance on Wall Street. And one of the greatest examples of institutional collapse in the midst of all of this era has resided in the journalism world, as the combination of e-commerce and the profit imperative has weakened many a thriving newspaper. The Spotlight team doesn’t unravel the Diocese’s sins without the commitment of time and funds that the Globe was willing to shower upon it. It’s a fact that is often ignored by evangelists of a predominantly freelance journalism world. Twitter might provide greater access to instant communications. Blogs might bestow independent power upon prospective truth-tellers. But neither of these outlets (let alone the “more with less” edict that has swept so many institutions in this country) can provide the investigative depth and heft of a well-supported journalistic endeavor.
There was a time in our country when we regarded The Fourth Estate as a public service, integral to the maintenance of the democracy and the common good. Of course, there was also a time when we regarded the church (whether it be Catholic or Protestant) as a generally infallible presence in the preservation of that same common good. Tradition cuts both ways like that. The Catholic Diocese of Boston might have covered up the actions of pedophilic priests, but in one of the most sad, disturbing scenes of Spotlight, the mother of an abuse victim admits that the greatest pressure on her to keep her mouth shut came not from the clergy, but from her fellow parishioners. A few people in their early 20’s that I know who have seen this film marvel at the concept of the Catholic Church wielding such power over a community, and over the city being dominated by such a clannish cultural imperative. But their experience of Boston is the more multi-cultural, worldly city that exists today, the one whose major sports icons have hailed from the Dominican Republic. Yet under that gleaming, diverse surface, the Ivy League legacies still exist, and gentrification continues to push minorities and the economic majority out of the central hubs of the city. Spotlight serves as a powerful reminder of a time that is not as distant as it might seem, a point that’s hammered home in the pre-credits graphics that list all of the cities worldwide in which Catholic sex abuse scandals have been uncovered in the years after the film’s events. We might live in an era of relentless change, but tradition still wields a powerful siren song, one whose sometimes damaging consequences are often all too easy to ignore.