Spotlight on the Catholic Church in McCarthy's Important Film

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Spotlight Films, 129 minutes, R (Sexual abuse themes)
* * * * *

The best film of 2015 is playing at a mall near you, but it's not titled Star Wars. Avoid the long lines, costumed geeks, and Gen Xers reliving their childhoods, and see Spotlight, the film about how a team of Boston Globe reporters blew the whistle on pedophile priests. Forget films such as Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and The Departed, the biggest organized crime syndicate in Beantown was the Roman Catholic Church.

Spotlight takes its name from a column produced by Globe investigative reporters. In 2001, four of them–Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) ––were at work on their usual shtick of exposing corrupt cops and crooked pols, when  two things happened: Father John Geoghan was arrested for child abuse, and the Globe hired a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Though a cheerless soul, Baron was a breath of fresh air across Back Bay–a man with a serious nose for news, a non-native unimpressed by insider complacency, and a Jew in a Catholic town. To Baron, Geoghan smelled like something cast from the middle of the barrel, not a single rotten fish, and he was right. Before the Globe collected a fistful of Pulitzers in 2003, more than 290 pedophile priests were fingered–a stunning one of seven within the Archdiocese of Boston. Even more distressing was that that a decades-long cover-up took place with the full knowledge of one of the most powerful prelates in North America: Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. Spotlight tells the sordid tale of how the Church's power, wealth, and cozy relations with Boston elites swept pedophilia under the rug.

Star Wars made more money in advance sales than this film has made since November, but Spotlight should be must-see viewing for all Americans. Many have stayed away because–let's face it–pedophilia is a distressing subject. Several friends have told me they couldn't watch a film about kids being abused. Rest assured–you won't.  Director Tom McCarthy steers well clear of all things graphic or salacious. There are no ominous scenes of priests hovering over little boys, no shadowy reenactments, and no melodramatic music presaging a child in danger. Spotlight is about the investigation, not the activity, and most of the action takes place inside the Globe, not inside the Church. It is, in essence, this generation's All the President's Men, Alan Pakula's 1976 drama of the Washington Post's investigation of Watergate. There's even a Deep Throat-like character, whose identity I'll leave you to discover. By extension Spotlight is a warning about the dangers of theocracy.  After all, the Church needed cooperation from other social institutions, including both City Hall and the pre-Marty Baron Globe, to maintain its house of cardinals. In other words, this film won't traumatize you, but it will make you quake with righteous anger.

Speaking of righteousness, Spotlight depicts a Catholic Church in the throes of a might-makes-right ethical crisis. This means it's a film about mental and spiritual abuse as much as physical violation. The Church's overarching grip helps us understand the many years of silence by the abused and their families. Imagine growing up in a world in which, as one victim put it, attracting the attention of a priest was like having God personally speak to you. In many ways, the power of the Church was analogous to the grip of the Mafia–there are some things about which one simply does not speak. Getting a glimpse of power's ebb and flow is reason enough to see Spotlight. And seeing how that power erodes in the face of corruption, awakened conscience, and calcified practices (such as celibacy and sacerdotalism) is another. As for breaking the silence, muse upon the anger of working-class adults from South Boston who have never set foot on Beacon Hill being lied to by the very institution that promised eternal reward.

This is, after all, a movie, so are there filmic reasons to watch? Plenty. First of all, it's well directed. I would think Spotlight a lock for the Best Picture Oscar, and McCarthy has to be the odds-on favorite for Best Director. We know how this ends. If I might, it was in all the papers. McCarthy's greatest trick is to keep us on the edge of our seats for a film filled with memes hurtling toward a foregone conclusion. It is so artfully done that we seldom notice when McCarthy pulls out the usual stops: near dead-ends that conveniently resolve, tearful confessions, lifted veils of fear, overcoming giant obstacles, beat-the-clock triumphs….

Unless I miss my guess badly, numerous cast members will join McCarthy on the Oscar podium. Mark Ruffalo is absolutely superlative and should win as Best Actor. Both Keaton and Schreiber are likely Best Supporting Actor nods, and McAdams might snare (and would deserve) Best Supporting Actress honors. The entire ensemble is so good that, by necessity, several stellar performances will be overlooked, so give a shout out to Billy Crudup as Church legal fixer Eric MacLeish, and Stanley Tucci as victims' lawyer Mitchell Garabedian.

But also watch this film so you understand why America needs newspapers. A healthy republic requires an informed and skeptical public. Ask yourself what blogger or TV reporter could have done investigative reporting analogous to that of the Globe. Even devout Catholics should be grateful to the Spotlight team. Draw a line from this story to Pope Francis (though he's yet to discredit the odious Cardinal Law). Put simply, without newspapers, the Monsters win. Put down that plastic light saber and educate yourselves, Citizens.

Rob Weir


Government: BernieSanders Is Right (and has been for years)

You may not believe it, but it's true!
It's January, folks. Now is the time to start paying attention to the presidential campaign season. All the crap we've heard thus far is little more than media hype—a dog-and-pony show of manufactured filler masquerading as gravitas.

One of the questions that every voter should ask is this: What is the proper role of government? If you believe the Borg—sorry, that swarm mind called "GOP candidates"– government has no role. The GOP loves to dust off a silly axiom uttered by Ronald Reagan: "Government is not the solution to our problems; it's the problem."  Of course, The Great Pretender then used the power of government to enact a massive giveaway to the 1%, fund budget-busting increases to the military, stack federal courts, bust labor unions, and legislate morality. Reagan never actually believed his own sound bite for a simple reason: Americans complain about government, but they actually like it.

Bernie Sanders has been saying this for decades. We hear lots of noise about how Americans want government out of their lives, how they despise liberals, and how much they believe in an unregulated economy, but it's not actually true. If you ask a question in a simplistic way, you get simplistic answers, but if you get specific about what people want, Americans come up with things that look suspiciously like a progressive agenda. But you don't have to take Bernie's word for this, or mine, or those of hopeful liberals. Try the Pew Research Center. It's that rarest of bodies, a think tank that is truly nonpartisan in the sense that it advocates for or against nothing. Pew collects data and reports it—nothing else.

A December scientific poll of 6,000 Americans took thirteen issues and asked whether they thought they should be a "major role for government." They were: keeping the nation safe from terrorism, responding to natural disasters, ensuring food and medicine safety, immigration policy, maintaining infrastructure, protecting the environment, improving the economy, improving education, income protection for senior citizens, setting workplace standards, access to health care, aiding the poor, and space exploration. Of these, the only one the public was willing to entrust to the private sector was space exploration, and it by a slim margin.

Outside of the Beltway there's not much of a sense that the private sector strengthens the economy. Nearly three of four (74%) saw that as the government's job. Nor do they want states to set immigration policy; 81% saw that as the Fed's task. All the hue-and-cry over Obamacare runs counter to the fact that 61% of public think government ought to manage health care. In fact, the only thing other than space exploration for which less than 60% of the public was willing to entrust the government was helping people get out of poverty and even that got a 55% stamp of approval.

The Pew data suggests that what really bugs people is that government doesn't always do a great job of discharging its duties. When asked if government was "doing a good job," poll data sinks—though probably not as low as you'd expect. There were only three areas in which a majority of Americans felt the government had fumbled the ball: just 28% think it has done a good job on immigration policy, only 36% give it high marks for helping people escape poverty, and only 48% credit it with protecting well the income of seniors. Back to health care, 56% of Americans seem to think the government is providing decent access to health care. and 51% approve of how it handles space exploration—which, ironically, is higher than the percentage of those who think it's government's job in the first place.   

Some polling numbers to watch: 76% think the government does a good job in setting workplace standards, which suggests Trump's CEO-driven business model won't resonate beyond his core, and 72% think they've been reasonably protected from terror—a suggestion that red meat Republicans are barking up the wrong tree. All of the environmental data is bad news for climate change deniers, and calls to repeal Obamacare looks like a loser. 

The red flags for Democrats start with immigration. The data is neutral, but it's clear that voters want to hear something new on this issue. Bare majorities (51%) think the government has done a good job with the economy or education, which suggests that Democrats ought to pay more serious attention to Sanders-like calls for job creation, wage protection, and slowing the pace of globalization. Nor would it hurt to go rogue on educational testing, No Child Left Behind, and other such policies.

Overall, though, the Pew data favors Democrats—if, and only if, they can stop being apologetic about being liberal or progressive. Sanders is right: Americans do believe in government; they just want officials to do their damn jobs!  


Season Seven of Downton in the Works!


Great news for Downton Abbey fans: ignore the rumors that your favorite show is ending this spring. The anticipation of PBS viewers like you was so enthusiastic that author/upper-class twit Julian Fellowes has decided there will be a Season Seven of Downton Abbey. You'll have to wait a year for the particulars, but my London source Sara Tishes Molesworthy, has provided me with Fellowes' outline treatment for Season Seven. As a public service (to snarks and jokers everywhere), here it is:

Episode One: Lady Mary goes into a snit.

 Episode Two: Tired of being falsely accused of killing people, Bates and his wife Anna leave Downton to devote their lives to crime, mayhem, and murder.

Episode Three: Lady Mary goes into a snit like you cannot believe.

Episode Four: Violet, Isobel, and Cora realize that Robert's profligacy has placed them one sacking short of total ruin. Unless they can raise enormous amounts of capital immediately, the estate will be sold to a fish and chips franchiser. Mrs. Patmore helps the three make crystal meth in the downstairs kitchen, which they sell through underworld contacts provided by Bates and Anna.

Episode Five: Thomas is discovered in flagrante delicto with Lady Mary's latest boyfriend and several naked underage stable boys. In disgrace, Thomas buggers off to America, where he becomes a Log Cabin Republican and uses his amoral wiles to amass a fortune selling derivatives and junk bonds. Lady Mary slips into a snit so deep she needs to climb a ladder to spew bile at Lady Edith.

Episode Six: Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are the proud parents of twins, a little boy whose first words are "How can I be of service mi'lord?" and a daughter strangely born with a key ring dangling from her fisted hand.  

Episode Seven: Robert has a thought, which he promptly forgets when he suddenly realizes he owns a dog.

Episode Eight: OMG, Lady Mary has the Mother of all Snits.

Episode Nine: A contract is taken out on Lady Mary's life. The hit is financed largely by Lady Edith, but the entire household contributes a bob or two. Bates and Anna execute Lady Mary, whose body is sold to anatomy students at a medical school in York. Mary's jewels are auctioned off, which provides the downstairs staff with a comfortable retirement. Robert runs Downton into the ground and the grounds become a fox- breeding habitat, and the house a retirement home for aged vegans. News of Mary's death causes the village to burst into gaiety and dance. Robert is forced to secure employment as Mr. Carson's footman.

Series End

But wait–it gets better. If you still haven't had enough, Fellowes has announced plans to produce a one-off called Frankensybil with a bewigged Benedict Cumberbatch starring as the reanimated Sybil Crawley. Allen Leech will reprise his role as Tom Branson, this time as an Irishmen with deeply conflicted feelings.

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream: Hopes for 2016


If you're of a certain age, you'll recognize the reference in the headline. For the record, lots of people think either Pete Seeger or Paul Simon wrote this song. It's actually from 1950s Folk Revival troubadour Ed McCurdy. But let's put aside musical history. January is the time for resolutions, an activity whose plausibility is roughly on par with giving up things for Lent. Short days and cold nights encourage fantasy, so I'm going really big for 2016. I'm going to dream that an unexplained wave of sanity descends upon the USA in 2016, and that the following things occur:

1.  A Bernie Sanders presidency. Okay, you knew that one was coming from me but seriously, in a sane world would anyone be rooting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? The stench of greed and overall despicability hangs on The Donald like a bad toupee, and Walmart Hill is about as trustworthy as a domesticated rattlesnake. And she's probably less venomous than Marco Rubio, the GOP Stop- Trump darling of the moment. Sanders is the only candidate who actually gives a damn about ordinary people, isn't a gadzillionaire, and is exactly what he says he is.

2. Significant gun control actually happens. I said I was indulging in fantasy, didn't I? What we'll really get in 2016 is more sprays of flowers, more Bullshit sandwiches from the NRA, and lots more funerals. Invest in Teddy bear futures. In 2015, 265 children killed themselves or someone else with a gun. These were not predator or gang killings; these were accidental deaths because, when you leave loaded weapons hanging around, shit happens. So I'm dreaming that during the Great Sanity Epidemic of 2016, we'll actually ban assault rifles, overturn concealed carry laws, and limit the amount of ammunition a person can buy to two bullets at a time (with a proviso you must provide spent cartridges to buy another two). I'd like to ban all weapons, but apparently my dreams are more rational than my conscious mind.

3. The term micro-aggression is banned and thinking is declared mandatory on college campuses. The very idea that college is supposed to be a "safe space" where one's existing beliefs are supported and coddled is absurd. One is supposed to go to college to learn skills, but also to expand one's mind and have preconceptions challenged. In my fantasy, both student and professorial bloviating propagandizers are swept aside by a free-thinking, free-speech, evidence-based tidal wave. It becomes mandatory that each student must consider three alternative points of view for every one they express. In my deep fantasy, I imagine students who publicly proclaim they were "wrong" about something­–anything! I also dream of a student-led backlash that asserts, "If you want a safe haven where people only believe as you believe, get thee to a nunnery." 

 4. Climate change is acknowledged and addressed. In 2106, Americans, Indians, and the Chinese awake one morning and realize that climate change is real and that there will be no future commerce unless it's rolled back. All three nations withdraw subsidies for petroleum, admit that "clean coal" is a hoax, slash their military budgets, and allocate resources for the development of high-capacity batteries, hydrogen cells, and renewal energy sources. Congress passes a bill mandating that, beginning in 2017, no vehicle can be sold that does not get at least 45 mpg, slaps massive carbon taxes on all existing low mpg vehicles and on factories that pump pollutants into the environment, and mandates that all existing vehicles and factories must be energy efficient and emissions-free by 2020. Business industry and petro-chemical stockholders are stunned when the Supreme Court upholds Congressional action. "It's either this or the end of human life," says Anton Scalia, writing for an 8-0 majority, with Justice Thomas abstaining.

5. UMass kills its football program. What a stupid idea it was in the first place! What a waste of money! What kind of an idiot ever imagined the crimson-clad Minutemen would become the Crimson Tide of the Northeast? It's staggering that nobody in the UMass administration has had the courage to say, "Enough!" and end a farce that's costing nearly $9 million per year—all for a terrible team to play in front of 9,000 disinterested people in cavernous Gillette Stadium. The continuation of UMass Bowl Division football has become a classic CYA maneuver for its red-faced progenitors. This program will fail—it already has—but in my fantasy it's put to bed before it bleeds additional millions that could be put to better use.

6. Parents say "no" to football. Since I'm on a gridiron high horse, a sanity outbreak would rot football at the grassroots level. I think football is already a dying sport, but it will take decades at the current disintegration rate. Lots of parents are steering their kids into alternatives like soccer that won't leave their offspring with oatmeal brains by the time they're 28. True sanity would involve a collective refusal to sacrifice young people's brains and bodies for the sake of a TV advertising machine.