Though All the Presidents Men and Zodiac are two of the greatest American films without a doubt, they really only have the newsroom in common. What they are about and how they tell their stories are vastly different. Zodiac, you could say, is All the President’s Men jacked up to 11. And even then that doesn’t cover it. Where they are similar is that they are both about men who were secretive. They are both about a trail of clues. They both take place amid typewriters and news briefs, reporters, ledes and headlines. It stops there because Zodiac is a horror film both because it’s about a violent, vicious sociopathic killer and because it is ultimately about the horror of unending deep diving obsession. All the President’s Men is much less complicated. It is about a story and two reporters who relentlessly uncover that story thus bringing down a president. There is a clear line between good and evil. There isn’t a whole lot of soul-searching to be done because there is only the right side and the story of deception. Think of them like World War II vs. Vietnam. Whenever a film comes out about a newsroom comparisons are made to both films — probably it’s inevitable. Spotlight is the latest such movie. The thing about these comparisons, though, is they are nearly impossible to surmount; how can any film stand up to being measured against All the President’s Men and Zodiac? Last year’s Nightcrawler suffered the same fate — critics drag out those tired old cliches like they are in a pitch meeting: it’s Network meets Taxi Driver. Okay but how in the hell is any movie ever going to compare to those films? Either way, Spotlight is dividing critics in early reviews — with Variety giving it a thumbs up and calling it McCarthy’s best film, and Peter Bradshaw and Todd McCarthy a little more iffy.
A rave by Variety’s Justin Chang touches on that and notes the obvious differences:
Even without the onscreen presence of Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father famously steered the Washington Post through Watergate, “All the President’s Men” would be the obvious touchstone here. Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, “Spotlight” is a magnificently nerdy process movie — a tour de force of filing-cabinet cinema, made with absolute assurance that we’ll be held by scene after scene of people talking, taking notes, following tips, hounding sources, poring over records, filling out spreadsheets, and having one door after another slammed in their faces. When the Spotlight investigation is temporarily halted in the wake of 9/11, we’re reminded that the film is also a period piece, set during a time when print journalism had not yet entered its death throes. Like the American remake of “State of Play” (in which McAdams also played a journalist), McCarthy’s film includes a loving montage of a printing press, busily churning out the next morning’s edition — a valedictory sequence that may move old-school journalists in the audience to tears.
The story’s newsgathering focus ultimately creates a level of distance from its subject that works both for the film and against it. As information-system dramas go, “Spotlight” doesn’t have the haunting thematic layers of “Zodiac,” and it never summons the emotional force of the 1991 miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent,” still the most devastating docudrama ever made about child abuse within the Catholic Church. Many of the victims depicted here — like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), who movingly recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Paul Shanley — function in a mostly expository manner, offering up vital but fleeting insights into the psychology of the abusers and the abused, but without taking pride of place in their own story.
Here is where you see the film depart from those that came before it:
Where the film proves extraordinarily perceptive is in its sense of how inextricably the Church has woven itself into the very fabric of Boston life, and how it concealed its corruption for so long by exerting pressure and influence on the city’s legal, political and journalistic institutions. Given the blurrier-than-usual separation of church and state, and the fact that the newspaper’s own readership includes a high percentage of Irish Catholics, it’s no surprise that it falls to an outsider like Baron — a Florida native and the first Jewish editor to take the helm at the Globe — to play hardball with the Archdiocese. If there’s anything that keeps “Spotlight” from devolving into a simplistic heroic-crusaders movie, it’s the filmmakers’ refusal to let the Globe itself off the hook, pointing out the numerous times the paper’s leaders glossed over reports of abuse that landed on their doorstep.
That’s clearly the real story of Spotlight that illuminates the much bigger problem — still an ongoing problem — the story of how this travesty has been covered up and forgotten.
Spotlight plays in Telluride over the weekend. Can’t wait.