film review of Spotlight

February 4, 2016

(This review appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 28 January 2016. Click here to view a copy of the Jewish News article.)

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D’Arcy James and Billy Crudup

There are many good reasons to see the new film “Spotlight”, which details the real-life events of how the “Boston Globe” newspaper reported on and “broke” the story of systematic Catholic clergy child abuse. It’s the best film about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men” dramatised the Watergate scandal. The superb cast – all portraying real-life characters – provides the best ensemble acting of any film in recent memory. And “Spotlight” is set in a time (2001 and 2002, spanning the events of September 11th) and a place (Boston) that grounds the film in a true historical reality, down to the thick and accurate Boston accents, and including a fabulous portrayal of a media world on the cusp of dramatic digital transformation.

“Spotlight” is the name of the “Boston Globe’s” investigative team, a group of fiercely independent journalists. In the middle of 2001, the “Globe” – then owned by the “The New York Times” – received its first editor who had not grown up locally: Marty Baron (played by Liev Schrieber), transferred by “The Times” from the “Miami Herald”, and subsequently named by “Esquire” magazine as the “best news editor of all time”. Baron was also the “Globe’s” first Jewish editor; he encouraged the Spotlight team to tackle the simmering child abuse scandal. With Catholics comprising more than half the paper’s readership – and the Spotlight team all “lapsed” Catholics themselves – it took the outsider, the Jewish guy, to force the issue, against both internal resistance and external opposition.

Baron wasn’t the only outsider on the case. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) had long represented numerous child abuse victims suing the Church. Garabedian’s character points out that as an Armenian, he is not part of Boston’s Catholic “power elite”, and thus able to challenge the status quo. In Boston, religion matters. A lot.

Although Baron and Garabedian played important roles in uncovering the scandal, the film concentrates on the work of the Spotlight team itself: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), team leader Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), and researchers Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), following them through their daily grind and the emotional journeys of slowly uncovering what turned out to be one of the biggest religious scandals in American history. No-one, including this team at first, could believe that the Church had systematically covered up and protected so many abusive priests. The team eventually published 600 stories about the abuse and the team received a Pulitzer Prize.

This is a “close” and intimate film, powerful and fast-paced, with an extraordinary attention to detail by writer/director Tom McCarthy. Not surprisingly, “Spotlight” has received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, editing, original script and acting for Ruffalo and McAdams. Aside from the realistic Boston settings, the sense of verisimilitude is enhanced by the cast: most of the Catholic characters are played by Catholics and Schrieber is Jewish.

This is another important reason to see “Spotlight”: as one of the most important contemporary dramatic films made about religion, it holds far-reaching significance for Australia. The film concludes with an on-screen listing of 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world-wide where sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light: 22 of the international locations are Australian, from Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney to Wollongong, with many in-between.

“Spotlight” also illustrates a major reason why the Catholic Church refused to take a principled stand against the antisemitic portrayal of Jews by Mel Gibson in his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”. According to a Boston priest with extensive interfaith Jewish experience who I interviewed in 2008, the Church’s authority was so weakened by the scandals depicted in “Spotlight” that the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops felt unable or unwilling to risk offending their constituencies by criticising a popular Hollywood film. The result: far greater success for Gibson’s film than it deserved.

Spotlight(photo above: the lead actors of the “Spotlight” team: from left – Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy James

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Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016

December 24, 2015

(This article on Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016 appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 24 December 2015.)

“Goosebumps” (Roadshow, January 14) is based on the works of R.L. Stine, the mega-popular Jewish writer of children’s horror fiction. Stine – often called the “Stephen King of children’s literature” – is the author of hundreds of novels, which provide the basis for this 3D live-action/computer-animated children’s horror/comedy film. The film stars Jack Black (playing the character of Stine), Dylan Minnette as a teenage boy who moves to a new town, Odeya Rush as “Hannah Stine” – R. L. Stine’s daughter (in real life, Stine only has a son), In the film, Stine (Black) keeps all the ghosts and monsters in his books locked up in manuscripts. Zach and a friend unintentionally open one of Stine’s books, leading to the release of every ghost, monster, and villain. You can guess the rest. Stine briefly appears in the film playing a high school drama teacher, credited as “Hallway Parker”.

“Spotlight” (January 28) provides a gripping dramatisation of the child sex abuse cases that occurred in the Catholic Church, particularly in Boston.  Although this is not a “Jewish” story, it certainly is one of the most significant religious films of the year, and the events that took place had a profound impact on the ability of the US Catholic bishops to respond to other crises during and after that time.  That held important implications for Jews, as my (upcoming) review will make clear.  Directed by Tom McCarthy, and starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Tucci.

“Steve Jobs” (Universal, February 4) is the much-anticipated “biopic” about the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Although Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) was not Jewish, the film has lots of Jewish connections: written by Aaron Sorkin (Jewish), based on the book by Walter Isaacson (also Jewish), it includes the characters of (early Apple employee) Joanna Karine Hoffman (Polish Jewish father), technology journalist Walt Mossberg (Jewish), Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish, played by Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg from “A Serious Man”) and journalist Joel Pforzheimer (Jewish). Seth Rogen also plays Steve Wozniak (who is not Jewish). Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear. The film has received four Golden Globe nominations, including best actor/drama (Fassbender), supporting actress (drama) for Kate Winslet, screenplay for Aaron Sorkin and original score.

“Zoolander 2” (Paramount, February 11), the latest from Ben Stiller, has much to live up to, given the cult status of the 2001 original satirical film (now termed “Zoolander 1”). Stiller directs and reprises his role as model Derek Zoolander, and is joined by actors Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor (Stiller’s wife), newcomer Cyrus Arnold as “Derek Zoolandger Jr”, Billy Zane as himself, Justin Bieber as in himself, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Milla Jovovich, Macaulay Culkin as himself, Miley Cyrus as herself, Lenny Kravitz as himself and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the original “Zoolander”, Ben’s father Jerry Stiller’s memorable portrayal of “Maury Ballstein” has been called one of the “25 greatest Jewish characters in movies”. He spends the whole film with visible chest hair topped by a Magen David. A classic Ballstein quote: “I got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories. It’s time to set the record straight.”

Hail, Caesar” (Universal, February 18): Advance word on the new Joel and Ethan Coen comedy “Hail, Caesar” is that it is one of the most “Coen-y brothers films yet”. So says “The Guardian”, inventing a new, and as yet unheard of word, “Coen-y”. Set for its international premiere at the opening night of the Berlin Film Festival (a frequent location for Jewish-themed films) in February, with an Australian cinema release a week later, “Hail Caesar” features Josh Brolin as a Hollywood “fixer” named “Eddie Mannix”, working on a new film called “Hail, Caesar”, which stars actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who in turn is kidnapped. Mannix has the job of bringing him back.

When this Jewish writing/directing/producing pair puts out a new movie, the film world takes notice. From “Barton Fink” to “The Big Lebowski” to “A Serious Man”, their frequently bizarre – and often Jewish – characters have set new milestones for creativity. This time, the cast also includes Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill (as a Jewish producer), Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton (as Hedda Hopper), Channing Tatum and notable Jewish actors Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”) and David Krumholz as Communist screenwriters.

“Son of Saul” (Sony, February 25) premiered in Australia at the Jewish Film Festival in October, and is widely tipped as a major contender for the “best foreign language” Oscar, already holding a nomination for the Golden Globe best foreign language film. From Hungary (in Hungarian), early reviews indicate that “Son of Saul” will soon join the ranks of some of the most noted dramatic films about the Holocaust.

The date is October 1944, and the place is Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the boy’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and offer the boy a proper burial. A true triumph of the spirit.

(Photo of Ben Stiller in “Zoolander 2” below.)

Ben Stiller Zoolander 2


Nostra Aetate 50th Anniversary Celebrations in Sydney

November 5, 2015

For the Jewish community, there are few post World War II events more significant than the 1965 Nostra Aetate, the Vatican’s declaration on the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions.  (The phrase is Latin, and in English simply means “In our time”.)

As the Australian Catholic Church’s official website notes, the:

Document transformed the Church’s attitude towards believers from other religions.  For the first time in history, the Church spoke positively about other religions. The Declaration is widely considered a “watershed” in the relations between Catholics and believers from other religions. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called it the Magna Carta of the Church’s new attitude and approach to other religions. It continues to inspire and to guide Catholics in forging relationships of mutual respect and collaboration.

Last Wednesday, 28 October 2015, I attended the Sydney evening celebration of this event at Sydney’s Great Synagogue, with the keynote speakers Rabbi Dr Ben Elton (Chief Minister of the Synagogue) and The Most Reverend Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, moderated by Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

One item of note that the press coverage of the event has not picked up on was Professor Craven’s announcement that the Australian Catholic University was planning to establish a Professorial Chair of Jewish-Christian relations.  To my knowledge, this would be a first in Australia, although the model is well-established in the USA, where it has proved to be very valuable at times of communal religious stress.  When the film “The Passion of the Christ” (Mel Gibson, 2004 – and the subject of my PhD thesis) was released, the attendant controversies caused widespread fractures between the Jewish community and certain parts of the Christian communities in the USA, especially the Catholic Church.  A number of the university-based centres for Jewish-Christian relations around the country (such as at Boston College, a Catholic university) provided excellent counterbalances at the time.

The Sydney 50th anniversary event was hosted by the Australian Catholic University, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Sydney Jewish Museum.  Three images below:

(The event’s flyer)

Nostra Aetate event Sydney flyerThe official 50th anniversary document, with Jeremy Spinak (NSW Jewish Board of Deputies), Peter Wertheim (Executive Council of Australian Jewry), Archbishop Fisher and Rabbi Dr Elton:

Nostra Aetate photo2

Archbishop Fisher, Rabbi Dr Elton and other attendees:

Nostra Aetate photo1(The two photos were taken by Giovanni Portelli, Catholic Communications, Archdiocese of Sydney, and were sourced from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies website page about the event.)