Little Furry Things

Zootopia (Howard/Moore/Bush, 2016)
A terrifying and unrelenting vision of a world long after the apocalypse, where only mammals survived, and built their own civilization with all of the mistakes that zoomed humanity.

Nah, fuck it, this is a kid’s movie about a cute bunny (Ginnifer Goodwin) who fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming the first tiny mammal cop in a world of talking animals; previously, we see, only the largest animals had become cops. (This seems entirely sensible, but a nice training sequence reveals how Judy Hopps learned to use her speed and high jump to compete with the more lumbering cops). Assigned to the garbage meter maid beat, she encounters a con artist fox (Jason Bateman), who is far more comfortable with the limitations placed on him by speciesism. There is a mystery. Spoiler: They solve it.

The test of any kid’s cartoon is whether the target audience will find it cute and the parents who pay for it will find it witty. “Zootopia” succeeds, even if some of the jokes are right on the bunny nose. (A mob boss named Mr. Big — who is actually very tiny — and talks like Vito Corleone! Ah ha ha fuck you.) The characters are adorable, the world-building is gorgeous if theme park-esque, and there is a delightfully problematic through-line about whether we can ever escape our genetic inheritance. Put another way: This is a movie for children in which the hero explains that some animals may simply be “biologically” inclined to violence, and where the voice of Idris Elba, through a water buffalo, says that “this world was already broken.”

Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2016)
The delightful but derivative series continues (no one can say “concludes”) with a story about the titular panda, Po, (Jack Black) encountering an ancient, soul-sucking evil (J.K. Simmons) and overcoming him to become a “master of qi.”

Look, if I was eight or nine years old, I fully believe that these would be my favorite movies — funny, furry characters getting into beautifully choreographed battles, all re-enactable in the backyard. As a man who was born around the same time as Michael Phelps but achieved much less, I still have a spot for these movies — in part because the voice casting rewards fans of “Mr. Show,” in part because I watch them when I am on planes and very tired.

Still, there’s a visible tug of war between the plot points that were designed by committee and the dialogue punched up by funny people. I enjoyed the banter, especially a running gag about Kai’s frustration that no one remembers him 500 years after he was banished to the spirit realm. I sort of shrugged through the introduction of a Secret Panda Village where a civilization that abandoned Po (for reasons never explained) takes him in and acts all goofy. Evil is defeated by people Being Themselves and Working Together. Finally!

The blog where it happens

This is a model takedown, and a lot of fun even if you’re not so much a “Hamilton” hater so much as a person who can’t understand how your friends had the time and foresight to see this thing.
 
Caveat: The impossibility for anyone but your annoying Instagram friends to get a ticket is cited as evidence that few people have experienced the dang thing. “Hamilton is the ‘nationwide sensation’ that only .001% of the nation has even witnessed.”
 
True, not many people have gotten to see it in person. But the cast album went platinum, in an age when nobody buys albums anymore. Lines from the musical have infiltrated culture and reporting. Insofar as a piece of theater can become widely known, this one is widely known. Just as people who have not seen “Star Wars” know “Luke, I Am Your Father,” I know “the room where it happens.”
 
That said, the people insisting that this is the greatest work of art of all time are silly. (That’s obviously Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.”) I guess the question is whether this musical is still cool when the inevitable “Rob Marshall’s ‘Hamilton'” film adaptation comes out at the start of President Hillary Clinton’s second term.

Ghostbusters (2016)

The first “Ghostbusters” was a formative movie experience for me, but not a sacred one. I saw it on TV or VHS sometime before 1989, i.e. when I was 7 or 8 years old. (I know this because I saw the sequel in the theater, when I was tood young.) Parts of that movie mapped the “screaming terror” part of my brain — Rick Moranis’s party gone wrong, Gozer’s red eyes, the librarian ghost that transforms when Bill Murray talks to it. In my teenage years and, yes, even today, the better lines became part of my conversation. “Cats and dogs, living together!” “When someone asks you if you’re a God, you say yes!”

Still, I snorted with all of the other right-thinking people when the geek army, having conquered all of pop culture, declared war on “Lady Ghostbusters.” I wanted it to be great.

It is not great. As remakes go, it’s higher than “Rollerball” and many floors below “Dawn of the Dead.” I align myself, as usual, with Sonny Bunch, mostly in his contempt for the people (cough RICHARD BRODY) who have been attempting to retcon the original film as a middling nostalgia joint.

PETTY COMPLAINT DEPT.

Product placement. A minor gripe elevated by how goddamn much it appears. Patty’s uncle is not just not a rent-a-car — he’s not a “Enterprise rent-a-car.” Holtzmann doesn’t just eat during the first sighting — she eats Pringles. For Christ’s sake, the Manhattan-based Ghostbusters order pizza and we get several wide shots of the Papa John’s box it came in. I’m not even a New Yorker and I was offended on Gotham’s behalf.

Dialogue. This is by far the least funny of the Paul Feig movies, and it happens to be the one grasping for the baton from a cultural institution. The more improved-sounding dialogue is perfectly fine; Wiig and McCarthy have great chemistry, eve if the joke is that they’re never in emotional sync. McKinnon, one of our muggiest actors, is fun to watch but never quotable; Leslie Jones is better than I’ve ever seen her, but I can’t remember anything she said.

Plotting. We get to the ghosts fast enough, but there’s no momentum and plenty of holes. The chintzy TV ad campaign of the first film explained how they stayed in business; this time the ‘busters have money problems but seemingly infinite scrap metal. Killer lazers shoot into random streets with no effect. Characters make stupid decisions to set up the conflict, far less satisfying than the original film’s “everything was going fine until the fucking EPA showed up” plot motor.

DEPT. OF THINGS I DIDN’T HATE

New characterizations. Feig didn’t want people to be muttering “is that the new Egon,” and voila, the four ‘busters are actually pretty well drawn characters. If one measure of success is that nerdy girls have new heroes to trick-or-treat as, then this is a success — go ahead, awkward girl who wants to gel up her hair and be Holtzmann.

Feminity. Seriously, it was fine. A dance party instead of “we came, we saw, we kicked its ass?” Sure. A himbo secretary? Very funny, thanks to Thor. Unlike some percentage of the Internet, I’m fine with this film existing. I just don’t feel a need to ever see it again.

July 12

Just a few goals: Finishing a story, finding someone to buy a concert ticket, meeting up with the busy friend who could not make time for the concert. They were met in that ascending order of difficulty.

The story had come from an editor, who realized that the grumpy recalcitrance of Republicans toward the “Black Lives Matter” movement had been absent (or at least underplayed) in our coverage. Putting that together was easy, mostly involving sources from my coverage of criminal justice reform. Around 1, however, I decided everything would be improved if I went to the Hill and grabbed some senators after their weekly lunch. (Their last, for a while.)

No holes in that plan until around 4, when I slowly made my way out of the Capitol and saw a police officer running to the floor of the House.

“What’s up?” I asked Billy, an old colleague from Bloomberg.

“I’m trying to figure that out,” he said.

For a reporter, I remained uncurious, and walked toward the exit. From Twitter I learned that the Capitol was “on lockdown,” or as the news chyrons would put it: “ON LOCKDOWN (SIREN SIREN SIREN).”

Fucking lockdowns. I enjoy weird danger as much as anyone, but the “lockdown” is usually a feature of the security state mingling with the media’s fear complex. If anything threatening or unmonitored approaches the Capitol (or any federal building)

“Some guy had a gun on 3rd Street.”

“Lost Themes,” the album, is perfectly produced – so much so that you wonder if more could have been unlocked from the melodies Carpenter wrote when he was throwing them onto soundtracks. Live, the only flaw was Carpenter’s guitar player. Most of his task involved windmilling, which he pulled off so barely that we waited for the inevitable flub. It never came, but the sound never clicked, either, and the riffs that were tyrannosauric on vinyl sounded like the gasps of a fuzzbox.

The crowd made up for that. I’ve never actually sought out one of those “Everytown Philharmonic Plays Themes from Blow-Em-Up” movie revues, but I can now imagine them, with the ordinary thrill of the familiar amplified by a frenzied audience. An establishing shot from “They Live,” a smoggy bridge with a pick-up truck parked on it, elicited fist-pumping and ovations. (I joined at the sight of Rowdy Roddy Piper.)

“Horror movies will never die!”

On “Welcome to Earth”

Apparently, for years, people have misremembered Will Smith’s alien-punching “Independence Day” quip as “Welcome ta Urf” and not the clearly enunciated “Welcome to Earth” that one of our most beloved and marketable stars actually delivered.

General consensus: People be racist. And I spend a lot of time on the Internet, so I can confirm that people are pretty racist.

However, I wonder if there’s a less ethnocentric reason for the wide misremembering of the scene. Thinking of it, I remembered Will Smith chomping on a cigar as he punched the alien. With a cigar in your mouth, “Welcome to Earth” would indeed sound more like “Weh-come ta Urf.”

I remembered it wrong. First, Smith punched the alien. Then he said “Welcome to Earth.” THEN he grabbed a cigar (he was just carrying one), put it in his mouth, and said: “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”

Because humans have evolved to minimize the amount of trauma we remember, we have forgotten that second, clunk-tastic quip. Indeed, many “Welcome ta Urf” memes use the photo of Smith and the cigar, suggesting that people conflate the two lines and their relative use of Smith’s mouth and teeth.

In conclusion, racism is over. Congratulations, everyone!

Hey, why doesn’t the media investigate this Trump guy?

 

Brian Beutler has a little fun with the conservatives who insist that The Media went easy on Donald Trump, knowing that he’d be an easy kill (or something) if he got through the primaries. This is not a fringe group, or some guy on Twitter — it’s a group that includes Sen. Ted Cruz, whom we all expect to run for president until the FEC files a restraining order against him.

In general, campaigns outgun and outpace the press at investigating rival candidates (particularly with respect to archival information that can’t be found online, and that requires expertise to obtain and decipher). They have more resources, no daily print deadlines, and no need to worry about impartiality. For a variety of reasons, the other Republican campaigns and anti-Trump activists did an absolutely abysmal job sifting through his dirty laundry between June 2015 and today. Bad researchers might’ve been part of the problem, but for too long most Republicans mistakenly assumed Trump would collapse on his own—and why bother investigating someone who was sure to implode?

This is all true. Tim Miller, the very smart co-founder of the oppo group America Rising who went on to be Jeb Bush’s game but constantly beleaguered spokesman, has admitted that Bush simply didn’t have the resources to dig into Trump by the time Trump became a threat. Cruz himself openly whiffed on attacking Trump on the theory that his support would collapse and he would reap the benefits. (Cruz’s tendency to delineate his plans while reporters listen is one of the things I like best about him.)

But this gripe is even worse than we’re letting on.

No one’s trying to protect Hillary Clinton. That’s the undercurrent here, and it must be based on zero conversations with political reporters. Washington mostly dreads the Clinton Restoration, with its promises of tightly controlling media teams, jobs for people with long-nursed grudges, and — let’s be honest — none of the cool factor that Barack Obama brought with him.

Reporters did investigate Trump. He launched his bid on June 16, 2015. Within three weeks, before he had fully taken command of the race, the Washington Post was up with a story about undocumented immigrants working on his D.C. hotel. Every story you know about Trump was excavated by journalists, be it the old quotes assembled by Buzzfeed, the old court documents assembled by Wayne Barrett, or the new looks at his business failures reported by my employer and other fine outlets. If voters wanted to read it, the material was there. We could hardly force-feed it to them.

Conservative media outlets failed and want to blame everyone else. Every presidential cycle brings forth new, well-funded (at first) conservative media outlets, often with the promise of hard-hitting news that the MSM (mainstream media) won’t cover. With time (and with exceptions), they eventually regress to the mean and become hot take factories. Nobody told The Daily Signal, The Federalist, The Daily Caller, Bold, Rare, etc that they were banned from investigating Trump’s finances or past statements.

Yet they didn’t do it. To use The Federalist (which I generally like) as an example, Trump coverage usually fit into the the categories of Blaming the Media (“Trump Proves Super PACs Can’t Buy Elections, But Free Media Can“), Insisting That All is Well (“6 Best Things About Paul Ryan Being ‘Not Ready’ To Support Trump“), or keying off of facts reported by the MSM to say that Trump was going down (“If Trump Runs America Like Trump University, His Campaign Promises Are Lies“). Coverage on the right generally debated what was happening, and did not shape it. The old conservative media quandary, of too many wannabe George Will and not enough Bob Woodwards, held up. (Separately, a lot of popular right-wing media figures just kind of rode the wave.)

UPDATE: Some folks point out that I left the Washington Free Beacon off the list. It did have good Trump reporting, though I think of it more as a source of good original Hillary reporting.

When a candidate wins, more resources are used to cover him. Like I said, there has been plenty of gimlet-eyed Trump coverage. That there’s more now does not mean it was lacking before. It meant that there were X reporters in a newsroom, and Y many candidates to cover, and the opportunity cost of digging into a story that might not be about the nominee is high. (I am convinced that one reason for snarky media coverage of Sen. Rand Paul is that big resources were used to profile him, for years, and editors/reporters came to see it as a bigger wasted investment than an igloo colony in Arizona.)

The strangest contradiction of this point was probably the one Fox News viewers saw on Sunday, when my colleague Bob Woodward was chided over the resources the Post was using to crash a book about Trump.

“Are you making an equal effort, because that’s something that we’re hearing from folks, an equal effort on Hillary Clinton?” asked Chris Wallace. “You’ve got 20 people on her?”

Well! Clinton, a political figure since the 1970s, has had quite more than 20 Washington Post reporters look into her background. Several Washington Post reporters, present and past, have written books about her. What does that have to do with the effort (which I’m not part of) to power through and publish a book about Trump, in time for the election?Look at the work of Ros Helderman, who published scoop after scoop about Hillary Clinton’s email investigation, during the period when 1) that story was new and 2) she was the presumed Democratic nominee. Now, Ros is doing more about Trump.

I’m fascinated by the qualms people have about the political media. When it comes to how cable news has covered Trump’s campaign — particularly, the full coverage of his rallies, a privilege awarded to no other candidate — I share those qualms. But enough already with the blame. The Fourth Estate held nothing back.

Stop shaming me for shaming airlines on Twitter

People like to complain about things on the Internet. People also like to complain about the vast amount of Internet devoted to complaining. I rise today to defend an unjustly maligned form of gripe: Twitter-shaming airlines for bad service.

Since Twitter became the main method by which journalists talk to each other, some have spoken out against the microblogging tool as a way to yell at airlines. To wit, just to quote people I know in DC:

And, most relevantly, here is Jack Shafer reacting to my gasket-blowing about a botched American Airlines flight today, which as of this writing might strand me in O’Hare for seven hours and cancel two in-person interviews.

Here, I would refer to the wisdom of Ricky from “Trailer Park Boys.” If you’re inclined to nag someone for using Twitter to talk to an airline, make like a tree and fuck off.

Consider:

1. A problematic flight is a time-suck at every level. If I’m on a work trip, I likely spent a few hours setting up interviews, a rental car, a hotel room, etc. A late flight or blown connection means I erase that work and start over. Emails, phone calls, online wrangling to reshuffle plans. You can see why the person doing all that might also take to social media to say “hey, this is no fun.”

2. Stranded airplane time is arguably the most unproductive time. Trying to do work? You need to hunt for a place to charge your device. Oh, and most planes don’t have places to do that, and neither do (most) airplane restaurants.* No, you’re likely be spending this time in a cramped space, at high risk of proximity to a baby (loud but harmless) or someone who doesn’t want to dirty his hand by using it to block a cough.** You could make a phone call, but you can’t exactly tell people to call you back, because — optimistically — you want to be in the air. Also, how effective are you when your brain is calculating and recalculating whether you can make a connection or land before Hertz shuts down?

The answer is “not very.”

3. Twitter gets results! Honestly, most of Twitter — the part I love most — is bullshit self-promotion and joke-telling. Do you need that in your life? You do not, fun as it is.

Ah, but airline-shaming — airline-shaming is a shotgun wedding of stupid form to beautiful function. As popular as Twitter is, it’s easier to reach a human being at an airline there than it is over the phone. Let’s use the example I’m most familiar with, today’s. I needed to connect in Dallas to a flight to O’Hare, which would connect me to a Sioux City flight. (I note here that I woke up at 4:10 am to do this.) Two stupid events intervened. One: A plastic bag had blown on the plane’s wheels earlier that day, and melted a bit. That took twenty minutes to clear. Two: A plane in O’Hare needed a part, so our (already delayed!) flight was chosen as the vehicle to bring it. Another twenty minutes.

I was supposed to land at 12:41 in pursuit of a 1:34 connection. Good enough! Instead, I spent 40 minutes watching as the arrival time crept just late enough to likely guarantee that I would arrive as the gate closed. (Let’s say 1:24, to be safe.) At 12:05 I tweeted:

Will you slam the doors to my connection and strand me in the airport overnight? Flight 3404 to SUX. This delay is outrageous.

At 12:30, this DM came through:

We’ve alerted ORD of your tight connection. We can’t guarantee that they can hold the connection, but they’re aware. In the event you don’t make it, you’ve been protected on the next flight to SUX, which is at 8:39p.

See? That… technically did not solve my problem at all. But that confirmed my presence on the airline’s radar, and gave me something to point to if I’m screwed again. (A few times I’ve been given airline miles and whatnot to make amends.) In a pre-Twitter world, what would I have had? Maybe, maybe, some ear time with a call center staffer who could not help.

In conclusion, hail Twitter. And fuck O’Hare. I swear if I give myself a 20-minute connection, I sprint across the entire airport. If I have a three-hour connection, I get a two hour 40 minute delay and spring across the entire airport.

*Some appreciation here for Minneapolis, with its identical but convenient bars that plunk down stools right in front of outlets.

**Not to capsize an already-irritating post with something yet more irritating, but if you have an Apple Watch — yes, yes, I know — and do not engage in some light walking or aerobics every hour, you get an alert shaming you to do so. Getting that alert when stuck in a tarmac’d airplane is a special sort of shit-nudge.

Movies of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
The praise for this movie has reached the rare incandescence granted to the sort of religious texts that start cults, or to the first season of the Sopranos. Goddamn if it ain’t earned. It’s hard to avoid metatextual details here (How, how did George Miller outdo his earlier movies 30 years later?), but the movie stands without them, all unforgettable imagery and eyeball-burning stunts — one long chase scene that never let you stop feeling the stakes. The acid test of a great movie is whether you smile when you remember it. This one passes.
2. Spotlight
Forget what I said about smiling.
3. Amy
4. Mistress America
Noah Baumbach’s work has inspired and frustrated me in equal measure, but Greta Gerwig is the best thing that ever happened to him.
5. Sicario
6. Inside Out
7. Ex Machina
8. What We Do in the Shadows
9. The Martian
10. It Follows
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
12. Tangerine
13. Creed
14. The Big Short
15. Clouds of Sils Maria
16. Ant-Man
17. While We’re Young
18. Straight Outta Compton
19. Brooklyn
20. Love and Mercy
21. The Hateful Eight
22. Trainwreck
23. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
24. Magic Mike XXL
25. Spy
26. The Revenant
27. Mr. Holmes
28. Steve Jobs
29. Jurassic World
30. Kingsman: The Secret Service
31. Far From the Madding Crowd
32. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
33. People Places Things
34. The End of the Tour
35. Paddington
36. Queen of Earth
37. Pitch Perfect 2
38. Spectre
39. Crimson Peak
40. Joy
41. The Overnight
42. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
43. Welcome to Me
44. Jupiter Ascending
45. Truth
46. Maggie
47. Furious 7
48. The Wolfpack
49. Tomorrowland
50. Black Mass
51. Chappie
52. Terminator: Genisys
53. Fantastic Four
54. Ted 2
55. Fifty Shades of Grey
56. The Human Centipede: Final Sequence
57. Aloha
58. Hot Tub Time Machine 2
If a truly great movie raises your dopamine levels, a truly bad one makes you want to sit down and drink in the sorrows of wasted talent. A murderer’s row of talent is, well, murdered — Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, all subsumed by a dark, homophobic saga of revenge and greed. Like light devoured in a black hole, otherwise wonderful people become grim.

I have opinions about the new ‘Star Wars’

tl;dr It was okay and most people will like it, but it offered virtually none of the fresh ideas and visuals that make sci-fi interesting.

So: “The Force Awakens!” I plunked down my $17 to see this in 3-D, and everything went as well as you could hope, with good friends arriving on time to sit together and two of said friends going in on a large popcorn. But I left in a sour mood, partly because I had to wake at 5 am for a flight, partly because, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, it’s so sad to watch a sweet $200 million squandered on old ideas.

Things Which Were Good

BB-8. It’s cute. Slightly disturbing to see copies of this droid celling in electronics stores for a year, based on the strength of that first trailer, but we all know that “Star Wars” is in large part a toy-flogging record.

The new cast members. We were programmed to like them, of course, in that masterful 18-month ad campaign. (Remember the first cast photo was a black-and-white “candid” of a read? Remember the instant debate and hot-takery, a dark Force nightmare of what Internet was to come?) But I’ll be damned if they didn’t live up to it. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are perfect, like the character traits of Luke Skywalker split into two British people who can actually act. (Okay, Mark Hamill got better over time.) Adam Driver, whose “huh?” factor was apparently a worry for marketers, finds a perfect use of his play-doh looks and oddly threatening shape. Speaking of:

Kylo Ren’s tantrums. Something we hadn’t seen before: A villain with Force powers who, instead of taking defeats in stride, starts flipping out like a kid who got Madden 2K15 instead of 2K16 for Christmas. If the filmmakers were committed to rebooting Darth Vader (and it worked, if the number of kids I see in Kylo Ren masks tells us anything).

That big death scene. An indescribable asshole on Twitter — but I repeat myself — spoiled it for me. That I felt myself getting weepy anyway is a testament to how well it was handled.

The action, in general. To appreciate it I’d point you to a copy of the prequels, which I still refuse to hate. In his dotage, George Lucas was a strange and coma-inclined director, whose idea of an action scene was two people (or one person and a CGI droid) standing in a frame, jumping around each other, as the audiences’ eyes wandered to the obvious green-screen scenery. JJ Abrams, for all his lack of imagination, makes this action move, with characters conquering the frame and skirting what looks to us like actual danger.

Things which are bad

World-building (or lack thereof). Did you want some haggard character to sit down and explain the last 30-odd years since the defeat of the Emperor? No, neither did I. But in the words of Sonny Bunch:

An attentive viewer is left wondering why the victory at the close of “Return of the Jedi” led, 30-odd years later, to a fascist empire that looks to have inherited all of the old toys. Dig around online and you can kind of figure out that the Republic got cocky and disarmed, but there’s no sense of how the First Order arose. Speaking of…

The First Order. Oh, the potential of this idea. The Empire collapses, and a younger, meaner, more capricious fascist force rises. These villains are obviously aware of what brought the Empire low: Boondoggle super-bases that had weaknesses their enemies could exploit and explode. So what do the new villains do? They re-use the resources of the Empire, from troop armor to war ships, and they… build a boondoggle super-base that can be blown up if its weakness is exploited.

Music. If I say “hum ‘Duel of the Fates,’” or maybe more helpfully refer to it as “the Darth Maul song,”

Few people argue that the new movie’s music is memorable; maybe they argue that Williams did something warm and subtle with “Rey’s Theme.” But the dominant argument seems to be that the music is forgettable because it doesn’t have to overcompensate for stupid filler scenes. Eh.

Deux ex machinas (machinae?): Like Ryan Vogt asks, what caused R2D2 to wake up from stasis, other than the fact that the movie was about to end? Like Sonny Bunch asks, how did Rey know what Force suggestion was — not how to do it, but what it was — given that she’s skeptical the Force even exists? There’s a larger metatextual problem here, and it’s that science fiction imagined space travel advancing with much more ease than it imagined communication technology advancing. So, in a galaxy where ships can travel light years in seconds, nobody has the ability to google (or flibbertiwock, or whatever it would be called here).

Nothing new to look at. This was the problem that left me lowering my rating of the film. Even the weaker George Lucas-verse properties put in effort to create weird new worlds. We never saw an undersea Star Wars city until “The Phantom Menace.” We never saw a clone factory until (ugh) “Attack of the Clones.” We never saw a lava planet until the genuinely great final battle of “Revenge of the Sith.”

Abrams’s “Star Wars” just gives us the best of what we saw and liked already — a cynic might think they adapted the toys and playsets that sold the best. If this wasn’t Lucasfilms approved, you’d call it plagiarism.

Ink-Stained Wretches

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
As I finish my book about the progressive rock movement — or, more to the point, as I procrastinate by spending 20 minutes writing something else — two nagging demons keep jumping on my shoulder. One says that I need to do a bit more work to get the story right. (That’s for the second draft, asshole.) One whispers the possibility that someone will cover the same subject, and drop it when my book drops, and make me wilt in the shadow.

So: I do not envy James Vanderbilt. Under normal circumstances, in which there are no movies about journalism in theaters, he would have just made a frustratingly bad one. The cruel god of timing cursed him to release that bad movie just weeks before “Spotlight,” probably the best movie of 2015, and one of the best-ever about journalism.

Talking to another friend (a journalist) who sat through both, we found ourselves wondering why Truth‘s story of hubris and failure was so much less compelling than Spotlight‘s story of success. It’s more than the clunky writing or Truth‘s seemingly endless use of slo-mo for effect. It’s that Spotlight is just so much smarter, and finds the darkness, the lack of real satisfaction, even in what seems like success.

It’s a smart movie, is what I’m saying. Truth is most decidedly not. It adapts the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who we would remember as the scapegoat of the botched story on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, if not for the fact that Dan Rather threw his scalp on top of hers. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, Robert Redford plays Rather, and both seem to be stretching the thin material into Oscar-shapes. It does not work, because they are trapped in the kind of movie that introduces a heroic veteran with a slow-mo shot of him saluting at a rainy military funeral; the kind of movie where a character warns that “you’ll know it’s bad when they ask to see our source,” then later has a villainous executive ask to see the source, and the same character turn and wryly tell his companion “now it’s bad.”

These are decisions that assume a very stupid audience. Strange, because… who did Vanderbilt think his audience was? The “Rathergate” disaster was compelling enough to inspire a similar story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but the only people who want to revisit it are journalists and partisans who know the basics of the story. They — okay, we — are not permitted to watch a straightforward drama about how ego and speed and outright fraud can throw lives off course. No, no, instead we get Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid, who unfortunately is the character I keep citing as example of the cinema sins here) telling a colleague that Mapes wanted to break this story in 2000, but her mother fell ill, and you know, “537 votes in Florida.”

We feel whipsawed between two equally stupid theories. One: The story of George W. Bush skipping out on TANG service was big enough to change the election. Two: The story was true, and repressed by partisans. Both are highly dubious. Add to this a cringe-inducing scene where a reporter on the story, played by Topher Grace, is being escorted out of the CBS News building and rants about how corporations are trying to suppress any news that threatens their power. It’s the sort of thing the whole narrative is implying, and then a character actually vocalizes it, and we shudder at the stupidity.

There is nothing like that in Spotlight. Actually, the only thin criticism it’s received has focused on the lack of character-building. I found that criticism totally misguided. McCarthy’s script perfectly captures how journalists talk, and more specifically how these journalists talk. (I only know one of them, Marty Baron, who hired me at the Washington Post, and anyone who wishes Liev Schreiber’s Baron was more animated or explosive is wishing he got the role wrong.)

Lots of people have heaped praise on the plotting and momentum of this movie. I think the characterization has been underrated. We do not get or need expository scenes of how months of work on the Catholic Church abuse scandal is affecting Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). We get a scene of her struggling with a dishwasher, and a telling look from her husband when another reporter (Mark Ruffalo) shows up late at night and asks for her. We get that reporter, Mike Rezendes, living in a hovel that he says he can’t really move out of what with the story consuming his time. We get that fact when the Boston Globe’s assistant managing editor (John Slattery) shows up with leftovers, because he knows Rezendes doesn’t have time to cook.

I loved everything about this movie, but what stuck with me was the lack of finality. After Rezendes delivers a copy of the paper with the first (of 600+) Catholic Church expose pieces on the front, he walks past two children who have an appointment with the attorney. They’d been molested two weeks earlier. Two weeks — after we’d seen a lengthy legal fight for documents and a six-week reporting delay due to the 9/11 attacks putting demands on the newsroom. We are told this iteratively, not force-fed. Strangely, it’s Truth that sanctifies the act of journalism and Spotlight that clarifies it.