“Spotlight” vs. “Concussion” – The Hard Problem of Institutional Guilt

Combined movie poster for

It would be easy to say that Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy’s dramatization of a 2002 newspaper investigation that first brought to light the rampant sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church is the same film as Peter Landesman’s Concussion, dramatizing the outside medical investigation of chronic concussion-related injuries in the NFL. But while they hew to a similar formula, they really have completely different approaches to both their underlying subject matter, as well as to institutional guilt itself.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is introduced in Concussion as a capable and unbiased outsider (both as an immigrant from Nigeria, and a non football-fan) who discovers chronic (but subtle) neurological degeneration in the brains of deceased former NFL players. He comes with impeccable credentials and education, and both he and the film know that he’s always right. He’s Dr. House without the sarcasm or pill addiction. He is, in essence, a paragon. And this makes it all the more difficult to accept him as an unapologetic moral crusader in his investigation of a newly named condition, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that causes former NFL players to undergo rapid neurological degeneration similar to Alzheimer’s at a young age, often coming to violent self-inflicted deaths in the process. The reason why his moral crusade doesn’t play nearly as well is because, simply put, the film has no clear idea of what the NFL might have known about the condition and when – and scientific discovery doesn’t work on a schedule. Omalu is well-meaning, but he only has a handful of initial cases, and while it’s easy to make comparisons between the NFL’s alleged “We don’t know and we don’t want to know” attitude, and the Catholic Church’s well-established institutional enabling and protection of pedophile priests (or, if you like, the tobacco industry as depicted in Michael Mann’s The Insider), the films really are dealing with completely different scopes of corruption and institutional guilt. There’s nothing ambiguous or scientifically controversial about child molestation. It’s either happening, or it’s not. A newly discovered medical condition that is poorly understood and difficult to detect (not showing up on brain scans of the living) is a bit harder to be so dogmatic about.

Meanwhile, Spotlight meticulously catalogs the varied and sprawling investigative threads of its Boston Globe reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) – we see clergy, attorneys, reporters, therapists, parents, teachers, administrators, and parishioners, all of whom had some level of knowledge about the situation, and all of whom were complicit on at least a minimal level in allowing it to continue. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says halfway through the film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This is a damning quote because the film so convincingly makes the case that the abuse was widespread, widely known, and only came to light when people (including victims) were willing to come together and put a stop to it. Contrast this with Concussion‘s clunky proclamations about how millions of Americans love the game, and the NFL employs hundreds of thousands of people, and cities and states have built massive stadiums even as they can’t afford to fund their schools (which struck below the belt as far as my home State of Washington is concerned), and it really just doesn’t have much bite to it. Even as Dr. Omalu gets late-night phone calls asking why he wants to “vaginize” football, the stakes are thoroughly muddled. Every change that has ever been made to American football has “ruined the game” in someone’s eyes, and it’s hard to imagine that trying to reduce the frequency and treatment of concussive blows to the head would be any exception. Yes, America loves football. And perhaps the NFL knew enough about CTE that they should’ve done something earlier to try to prevent any further cases of it, or at least stop trying to wriggle out of paying adequate disability pensions for those players who were affected by it. But apart from the men we see succumbing to their illness and dying on-screen, any guilt (whether individual or institutional) is poorly delineated, and no solutions are offered. Given that Luke Wilson appears in an essentially silent role as NFL chairman Roger Goodell, I can’t help but wonder if any desperately-needed context was left on the cutting room floor.

Another way the films differ is in how they depict the effects each investigation has upon its investigators. Dr. Omalu’s devastated outlook as the NFL makes various attempts to blackball and discredit his research is probably the most interesting part of the film, if only because Will Smith so thoroughly sells his disappointment that America didn’t live up to his immigrant expectations. “This is America,” he says to his future wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) early in the film, “Where you must be the best version of yourself.” As he comes forward to tell the NFL about this problem (by way of a case study in a prestigious medical journal), he genuinely believes that A) The NFL couldn’t possibly have known, and B) They will thank him and want to work with him. Obviously, this isn’t what happens. And Dr. Omalu is devastated to learn the true nature of the country that he has adopted as his own.

Beyond this, there is little in the way of personal stakes involved for this investigation. Sure, he’s paying for many of the medical tests himself, but we never really get a sense that this is causing him any hardship. He doesn’t know football, understand it, or enjoy it. This makes him non-malicious, but it also makes his arc as an outsider and moral paragon that much less interesting. Dr. Julian Baines (Alec Baldwin), a former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor, has a bit more reluctance about attacking the game he loves, but he only ever voices it after he has already committed to helping Dr. Omalu. So any internal conflict that he may have experienced feels fleeting. The inevitable moments of confrontation are well-acted, but feel perfunctory and unrealistic. When Dr. Omalu meets privately with an NFL doctor, Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser), and gives an impassioned sotto voce demand that he “Tell the truth!” about what’s going on, Smith sells the moment with his acting, but it has not been earned in the least, if only because science doesn’t deal in practical or moral certainty. It just deals with increasing degrees of understanding, to the point where we can reasonably make decisions based on them. But I suppose, “You should conduct a longitudinal study on the issue and begin taking basic precautions out of an abundance of concern for the players’ well-being” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Contrast this with the Globe reporters, who are clearly affected by every moment of Spotlight‘s investigation. All of them are lapsed Catholics, most of them are native Bostonians, and they have no desire to eviscerate the institutions that have comprised the fabric and background of their entire lives, and will continue to surround them after the story breaks. They’re certain of the rightness of what they’re doing, and they’re also frightened, angry, and unsure what the right approach to the story really is. Is it just a few bad apples, or is it the entire institution that’s corrupt? Which is worse – perpetrating these monstrous acts, or conspiring to cover them up, enabling further victimization? And at what point do you have a level of certainty that allows you to tell this story publicly? And when Rezendes finally loses his temper and demands that the Globe print the story immediately, Ruffalo has thoroughly sold his personal stakes in the matter, and the reactions of the rest of the Spotlight team clearly indicate that he’s just screaming aloud what all of them are struggling with internally. This struggle, with how to tell the right story at the right time, is the essence of good journalism, and Spotlight depicts it as well as it has ever been put to film. It demands that the viewer place themselves in the shoes of people scrambling in the dark to reveal what had previously been unimaginable.

In the end, both films have value, even if Spotlight has a treads a much more difficult path toward the story that it’s looking to reveal, whereas Concussion often just feels like it’s going through the motions (everything to do with Dr. Omalu’s wife, for instance). However, one area in which both films excel is in depicting the victims of their respective institutions, and it is perhaps where both films deserve credit for elevating the importance of what they are depicting. David Morse, Adewale Akinnouoye-Agbaje, and Matthew Willig all play former NFL players whose horrifying deaths are at the center of Concussion‘s mystery, and even if it lacks the moral clarity of Spotlight, the viewer is at least left with a sense that we owe these men an explanation for their largely uniform mental deterioration. Conversely, the victims of Catholic clergy sexual abusers are depicted in a variety of states, both in deep denial, chemical dependency, and relative normality. There is no such thing as a perfect victim outside of fiction, and between the two films, Spotlight is certainly less interested in perfection. It shines a light into the darkness, and shows us whatever may appear there.

FilmWonk rating (Spotlight): 9 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Concussion): 6.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #20 – ‘The Avengers’ (dir. Joss Whedon) (bonus spoiler episode)

Poster for "The Avengers"

This podcast contains spoilers for The Avengers and The Dark Knight. This week on the podcast, Glenn, Daniel, and special guest Sarah get together for a spoilery second look at Marvel’s The Avengers. While Glenn still stands by his 8/10 review, Daniel has other opinions, and if there’s one thing we love at the FilmWonk Podcast, it’s sowing discord. Find out if these three heroes can unite and save the cinematic world below!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • This episode was meant as a quick one-off, so it will unfortunately be a bit less polished than our usual episodes. Although my phone has a surprisingly good microphone!
  • Correction: A dutiful listener has pointed out that one of my supposed “continuity errors” is flat-out wrong. Stark and Banner get into the convertible, while Rogers takes off on the motorcycle. Mea culpa! Chalk it up to identical wardrobes and viewer fatigue.

Listen above, or download: The Avengers (right-click, save as).

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” – Big damn heroes

Note: There was dissent in the house of FilmWonk about this film! Be sure to check out our spoiler-edition podcast on The Avengers after you see the film.

As Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) addresses his fellow Avengers in the last act of this film, he makes the rather staggering leap in logic that their nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will surely go to New York City to fire the opening salvo of his war on mankind. Stark’s only evidence? NYC is where self-important people go to show off. While the non-New-Yorker in me couldn’t help but chuckle, this sloppy bit of plotting (and my instant acceptance thereof) did raise an interesting question. How much of my desire to follow these characters into whatever adventure and peril awaits them can be properly attributed to this film? This is the potential problem with any sequel – a dilemma that is compounded in a franchise like The Avengers, in which some of the characters were introduced in films that were at best mediocre, and in one case, starred a completely different actor. But while “The Avengers” might not have entirely succeeded as a franchise, Joss Whedon‘s rousing and epic take on the final film* has completely validated Marvel’s endeavor.

The gang’s all here, and both Whedon and his actors know exactly who they want them to be. There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), verbose and bombastic demigod who feels the weight of every moment – with a soft spot for humanity and for his villainous adoptive brother Loki. There’s Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), steadfast and reliable soldier – first out the door into a fight, and a natural leader. There’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), boss of the Avengers – chaotic, manipulative bastard beyond reproach, working at all times for the greater good.

And then there’s the other guy. Mark Ruffalo joins the Avengers as Bruce Banner, better known as the Incredible Hulk. If there’s one thing the last two Hulk films taught me, it’s that there’s a lot of potential goofiness involved with a character that explodes into a huge green uncontrollable rage-monster. And yet, everyone in The Avengers treats Banner with deadly seriousness, most of all Ruffalo himself. Even with his limited screentime, Ruffalo manages to deftly convey just what a self-hating, tortured soul this man is. Because the movie never treats the Hulk as anything less than an imminent, mortal threat, there is a palpable sense of danger surrounding him at all times. All of the fantastic tension in the early scenes between Banner and the Avengers is character-based – they fear the unpredictable man who stands between them and the beast. And surprisingly, it is between Banner and Stark that the film first starts to draw some fascinating parallels. Both Banner’s Hulk and Stark’s Iron Man are grappling with potentially lethal forces that threaten to tear them apart from the inside out. While Stark is far more ready to crack a joke about his situation, they feel credibly like the only two people in the world who can truly understand each other’s lot.

Stark has the most screen time – this is surely because both Iron Man and Robert Downey, Jr. are collectively the biggest star in the bunch, but it also marks a wise decision on Whedon’s part to use Stark as the film’s no-bullshit sounding board. Stark is a brilliant, abrasive, narcissistic billionaire, and seems exceptionally well-suited to the job of bringing subtext to the surface in a short period of time. In each of their scenes with Stark, more of each Avenger is revealed, and Downey’s performance here is as strong as it has ever been.

And what to make of the villainous Loki? He is the same whiny, entitled, beggar-king that be became in Thor, ranting constantly about his birthright and nobility and dispatching his enemies with unrelenting viciousness. Loki is less of a master of chaos than he pretends to be, but Hiddleston’s performance brought just about the right level of malevolence and false bravado to the role. Full-on villainy seems like a natural extension of his antiheroic beginnings in Thor – a film which I suspect, despite my cheap shot above, might actually be slightly better when viewed through the lens of what’s to come**.

And what’s to come is pretty obvious… All hell breaks loose in the Big Apple, per usual, but for once the city’s defenders seem immediately equal to the task at hand. This is partially because of just how powerful the Avengers are collectively, but it’s also because the invading “Chitauri” never quite feel like a world-ending threat. The army – a collection of District 9 rejects, Uruk-hai, and giant flying tortoises – wasn’t half as interesting as the heroes fighting it. But the scale, cinematography, and big, colorful superhero badassery of it all brought a huge grin to my face nonetheless. If there’s one thing I remember from Joss Whedon’s last film Serenity, it’s that the man can direct the hell out of an full-tilt battle sequence, balancing intimacy, scale, and devastation with near-perfection. A series of tracking shots take us on a breathtaking tour of the battlescape, as we see each of the Avengers brawling with their own impressive signatures. Despite the rather rote setup of the battle and its resolution, the stakes were undeniable, both for the heroes personally and for the city they protect***.

The Avengers is an unrelenting delight with a smart script and a rousing musical score (by Captain America composer Alan Silvestri). But the highest praise I can give this film is that even the most groan-worthy bits of fan-service were well-placed and served the plot in some concrete fashion. Did Thor really need to bang his hammer into Captain America’s shield? Of course not. But I’m glad I got to see it.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

* I say “final film” more in the sense of a climax, not out of any naive belief that Marvel won’t milk this franchise until it dies. After a $207 million opening weekend, there’s little doubt that there will be an Avengers 2.

** All things considered, Jane Foster is still a useless character, and I was pleased to only see Natalie Portman’s face in this film as a means of assuring us that she would not make another wasted appearance.

*** SPOILERY OBSERVATION (highlight to view):
While the nuke felt a little perfunctory, Stark’s sudden rush to self-sacrifice was profoundly affecting. Downey, Jr completely sold his transformation over the course of this film (particularly after Coulson’s death), and the film actually managed to make me forget, for a few seconds, that there’s no way that Marvel would let Joss Whedon exercise his penchant for character-slaughter on their biggest star. It was a lovely moment nonetheless, and one that this film completely earned.
END OF SPOILER

2010 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Jonah Hill – Cyrus, Cyrus

In this film from Jay and Mark DuPlass, most of the film’s dialogue was improvised by the actors, and I can only imagine what kind of direction the brothers gave to Jonah Hill as the title character. Creepier… Wider eyes… Like you’re boring into my soul with a searing fireplace poker… This film presents an utterly bizarre, almost marriage-like relationship between Cyrus and his mother (Marisa Tomei), and an instant antagonism for her budding romantic interest, played surprisingly straight by John C. Reilly. All three actors boast a fantastic chemistry, but it’s Jonah Hill’s performance that is easily the most memorable and comedically disturbing.

#4: Armie Hammer – Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, The Social Network

I don’t generally give credit to an actor simply because of the likely-difficult circumstances of production (I’m sure Sam Worthington’s Avatar shoot was no picnic), but Armie Hammer managed to navigate the movie-magic vagaries of playing composited crew-rowing twins while simultaneously imbuing each of them with a distinct and memorable personality. The level of sympathy for these characters will likely depend on your feelings on the Facebook/Harvard Connection litigation (ongoing as of this writing), but Hammer’s take on the brothers Winklevi never waivers from portraying them as consummate and forthright “gentlemen of Harvard”. Even as they seem determined to bring down the ostensible antihero of the tale, they never quite seem like true villains – they are honest, self-conscious, and perhaps a little naive. Hammer manages to convey all of the dimensionality and noticeably distinct personalities amid Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, turning in two of the most memorable performances in an equally impressive cast.

#3: Andrew Garfield – Eduardo Saverin, The Social Network

Minor spoilers for the film, and to a lesser extent, real life, will follow.
The effectiveness of The Social Network hinged on a great many things, but easily the most important aspect of the film is the erstwhile friendship of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin. Without Zuckerberg, there’s no Facebook. Without the relationship with Saverin, there’s no movie. Garfield and Eisenberg had a great comedic chemistry (a scene in which Saverin explains to Zuckerberg his treatment of a pet chicken is easily one of the funniest in the film), but Garfield also played the character with such earnestness and emotionality that this relationship and its inevitable dissolution were utterly captivating to behold. What happens to Saverin is business, to be sure, but the film manages to also sell it as a significant personal betrayal. While this owes a great deal to Sorkin’s writing, it is Garfield’s heartbreaking final scenes that make it succeed so masterfully.

While Garfield is receiving this award for The Social Network, I was also impressed by his turn in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. I can’t imagine what sort of Spider-Man he’ll be, but I’m a lot more interested in finding out after such a remarkable year of introductory performances.

#2: John Hawkes – Teardrop, Winter’s Bone

While Jacki Weaver may have played my favorite villain this year, it is John Hawkes who beats her out for the most terrifying screen presence. Given his unassuming and light comedic performance in 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and his thoroughly likeable run on HBO’s Deadwood, I was completely blown away by Hawkes’ transformation into the heroine’s wiry meth-addict uncle. From my original review:

His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

He and Jennifer Lawrence match each other’s grit quite nicely, and their unlikely alliance was crucial to the film’s effectiveness.

#1: Christian Bale – Dicky Eklund, The Fighter

As I noted in the podcast review, Christian Bale has mostly approached his last few years’ worth of roles in a gruff and humorless fashion, and the resulting performances have not been too impressive. The moment Dicky Eklund steps into frame in the film’s opening street scene, I forgot all of that. This character is such a firecracker. As Eklund saunters down the streets of Lowell, Mass. greeting every inhabitant he comes across, Bale utterly oozes with charisma. His physical and verbal commitment to this character is unparalleled in this cast or any other film this year.

This is the self-destructive crackhead you’d love to be friends with. At the outset, he’s wiry, twitchy and completely high in every scene, but just a load of fun to be around. He plays the most dysfunctional member of a severely dysfunctional family, and yet every one of his early scenes is an absolute pleasure. Minor spoiler, revealed in the trailer: When the character detoxes in the second half of the film, Bale manages to make the personality change believable, and yet still keeps the character completely engaging even without hopping uncontrollably as he did in the first half. This is the best Bale performance in several years, and easily boasted enough screentime to rightfully be considered for Best Actor. But the Academy has spoken

Honorable Mentions:

  • Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network
  • Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I Love You, Phillip Morris
  • Jeremy Renner as James Coughlin in The Town
  • Matt Damon as LaBoeuf in True Grit
  • Mark Ruffalo as Paul in The Kids Are All Right

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.