As “Spotlight,” a movie about the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals of the early 2000s, neared the end of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, something strange happened.
The screen, in an epilogue of sorts, flashed the names of the hundreds of places around the world that the scandal had hit. Almost in unison, the audience of 2,000 gasped. It marked an unusual movie-theater response to what was essentially a list of city names — fueled, if the murmurs were an indication, by the audience’s recognition of the urgency and breadth of a real-world scandal.
“I think people have some sense of the story, but they don’t have a sense of the scope,” said the film’s director, Tom McCarthy, when asked at a post-screening party about the reaction. “They don’t have a sense it was that comprehensive, which is one of the things we wanted to shed light on.”
Films are casting attention on a lot of such issues lately. “Spotlight,” one of the breakouts of the 11-day Toronto festival that ends this weekend, centers on an investigation by a group of Boston Globe reporters into a pattern of church concealment. At first appearing small — essentially just a few anomalous priests guilty of abuse — the story soon mushrooms into a large-scale conspiracy that goes all the way to the archbishop of Boston.
Movies in this scandalous spirit have been abundant at Toronto. (The festival is an early peek at the fall award season and a barometer of the state of prestige film; many of its movies will come out within the next few months.) Among them: films about Dan Rather’s inaccurate reporting on George W. Bush’s military record before the 2004 election (“Truth”), Whitey Bulger’s pattern of violence and collaboration with the FBI over many years (“Black Mass”) and the Lance Armstrong doping deceptions that came to light, and a head, in 2012 (“The Program”).
And though not about scandals per se, the new biopic “Steve Jobs” and the drug-cartel thriller “Sicario,” the latter of which played Toronto and opens this weekend, arrive in the same headline-seizing vein.
Unlike the charged fact-based stories of deep historical movies such as “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” — best picture nominees in each of the last two years — the new crop is decidedly 21st century, with all the newsworthiness and pitfalls that comes with a modern moment. These films take controversial topics from the not-too-distant past and seek to turn them into the stuff of dramatic cinema, either as comfort-food reenactment or, at their best, a fresh look at scandals we believed we knew. Cinema becomes a second chance at getting the story right.
“I think these movies allow us to catch up a little with our own history,” said James Vanderbilt, the director of “Truth.” “Nostalgia is getting faster and history shorter, and a movie like this is a chance to step back and say, ‘OK, how do we feel about this?’”
It also presents a chance to digest stories that, with the media attention span moving so quickly on to the next story, have remained unprocessed.
The Dan Rather tale at the heart of “Truth” might seem familiar — nearly everybody, after all, can recall the nickname “Rathergate.” But more specific memories have slipped down the rabbit hole and in fact may never have been worked fully through in the first place, including whether Bush’s career in the Texas Air National Guard was, as Rather reported, inflated after all--or how much the anchor and his longtime producer, Mary Mapes, on whose book the film is based, were responsible compared with those who misled them. (Not surprisingly, given the newsy subject matter, many of these movies feature prominent journalist characters.)
The films feed an American public increasingly hungry for scandal, whether that appetite stems from intellectual curiosity or a more salacious place. Documentaries, of course, are one way into this, as filmmakers such as Alex Gibney (who has made movies about Jobs and Armstrong) and Joe Berlinger (Bulger and the class-action lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador) have demonstrated.
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But dramatization offers another option, and a compelling one. A scandal comes with built-in audience recognition — prestige cinema’s equivalent of a franchise property — and some promotional benefits to boot. At Toronto, Rather turned out for a dinner for “Truth” distributor Sony Pictures Classics, posing for photos with tastemakers. Real-life Globe reporters packed the stage after the “Spotlight” screening, to the thrill of the audience.
“Rachel wanted to know everything: what I ate, how I grew up, what I thought,” said Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer about on-screen avatar Rachel McAdams, as the audience cheered. “It was an honor to watch this process.”
In recent years, the notion had taken hold that some real-world events are uncomfortably close for viewers, particularly for a spate of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that may prove to be a canard. Audiences have shown an interest in re-absorbing these events if the film is executed well.
When “United 93" — the most charged of current-events films — came out fewer than five years after 9/11, critics wondered whether it was too soon for filmgoers. Audiences voted with their pocketbooks that they wanted to see it anyway: The movie took in a solid $32 million at the box office and garnered many more viewers on cable and video-on-demand.
Still, there are challenges. A movie ripped from the headlines can lack dramatic tension because, by definition, we know more than the characters living in it. Viewers could be forgiven for feeling a kind of restless superiority during these movies; we’ve long had the veil ripped off our eyes -- why can’t these characters wise up too?
The genre can yield other constraints, not least of which are the real people who have participated in or will see these films. “Black Mass,” for instance, must take into account facts and victims in a way that many other gangster films don’t.
“When ‘The Departed,’ which I heard was loosely based on Whitey Bulger, wanted to go to very dramatic lengths, it could,” said “Black Mass” director Scott Cooper. “But I had victims and killers and real-life people to think about. I couldn’t just go putting whatever I wanted in.”
Doing so could of course elicit a backlash, a media back-and-forth that then questions the movie that questions the events.
And then there’s the simple matter of truth being stranger than fiction--or fact-based dramatization. “The Program,” in which British director Stephen Frears directs Ben Foster as a disgraced Armstrong, played to some at Toronto like a paler version of the real-life story.
“Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the apples of documentary with the oranges of drama, but when a subject like the one addressed in ‘The Program’ overlaps so significantly with a recent feature-length work like Alex Gibney’s 2013 ‘The Armstrong Lie’ ... ‘The Armstrong Lie’ still adds up to a vastly more comprehensive telling of the story, and a dramatically richer work,” wrote Hollywood Reporter critic Leslie Felperin. In contrast, “‘The Program’ becomes just a glib rehash of old news that brings the story up to date.”
But some of these films may not be as pegged to current events as they seem. Those involved with them say if they’re executed correctly, the works speak to larger themes, in which the familiar faces and names are just clothing for the more substantive body of questions underneath.
“This movie deals on some level with societal complicity and deference that transcends its story,” said “Spotlight” director McCarthy. “Whether it’s Bill Cosby or Penn State or so many other scandals, these don’t happen in a vacuum, and the question of how we could allow it to happen is the great question, that question of our own responsibility. Timely I don’t know about. Timeless? Yes.”