Real-life dramas make their appearance at the Toronto film festival, but sometimes in the movies, facts get in the way of a good story
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — Truth occasionally makes an appearance at a Toronto International Film Festival, although usually not in the presence of a movie star (“You were great, Kevin!”) It pops up in a few movies, more or less; not just in documentaries, its natural home, but in the Hollywood versions of real-life stories, usually twisted ever so slightly to make it more interesting, or cinematic, or sellable. Sure, truth is stranger than fiction, but the challenge is to make it more lucrative.
The biggest “true” story at TIFF is Spotlight, the Tom McCarthy version of the real-life expose by the Boston Globe of the scandal of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests (the Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer prize for the story.)
Spotlight — the name of the four-person investigative team at the Globe that uncovered the story — is essentially All The President’s Men in a clerical collar: a newspaper procedural that follows indefatigable journalists Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and others as they fight a Boston establishment that covered up the scandal for years. “It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to abuse one,” someone says.
It also seems to get most of the newspaper details right, although this is also the movie’s weakness: not just obscure ethical concerns (why does a section editor have to get confirmation from an anonymous lawyer when he has the documents that prove the case?) but also the fact that much of the scandal had already been reported in the newspaper’s back pages. In Spotlight, stories that have to be hidden are buried in the Globe’s Metro section. It’s a kind of witness protection program for news.
Still, it’s always nice to see reporters emerge as the heroes of stories, rather than just bothersome paparazzi, and it’s life beyond the red carpet in another film, Freeheld. It is a drama based on the true story of Laurel Hester, a dying New Jersey police detective who wanted to transfer her pension to her female partner. When it wasn’t allowed, a group of protestors helped change the law and recognize same-sex relationships.
Freeheld stars an unlikely pair: Julianne Moore as the policewoman and Ellen Page — making something of a movie comeback — as her lover. The real energy comes from Steve Carell as a gay activist who rallies the troops and demands justice. Newspapers eventually get involved, and it’s the publicity, rather than the rightness of the cause, that eventually wins the day. Freeheld is a by-the-books drama in which you pretty well know everything that’s going to happen to every character from the beginning, but its combination of outrage and schmaltz should ensure its life as a reliable tearjerker.
Newspapers become an instrument of evil in Trumbo, the film biography of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, an Oscar-winner who was kept from working during the 1950s because of the Hollywood blacklist against Communists. It was an evil time, as Trumbo points out, and director Jay Roach underlines this fact with all the conventions of moviemaking. My favourite moment is when director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) bursts into a scene with the announcement, “I’m Otto Preminger, the director.”
The villain here is powerful newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who used her influence to keep many screenwriters and actors from working. The hero is Trumbo, portrayed by Bryan Cranston as a smart, cranky, greedy, productive and brave man who kept working through the years of the blacklist by using pseudonyms on his screenplays (he won an Oscar under the name of Robert Rich for his screenplay for the 1953 film The Brave One.) Cranston is wonderful in the film, but it’s another case of a disappointing trend at this year’s festival: great performances in mediocre movies.
More stirring is the documentary He Named Me Malala, the story of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban and went on to become the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel peace prize. Director Davis Guggenheim (director of An Inconvenient Truth and — just to get all paparazzi for a second — husband of Elizabeth Shue) doesn’t reveal much that we didn’t know, but the movie soars on the personality and courage of Malala herself, and also of her father Ziauddin. Both of them risked their lives in the cause of educating girls.
Malala emerges as an astonishing teenager: smart, brave, self-possessed, compassionate but also with a lot of girl still in her. A scene where she giggles when she’s asked if she’d ask a boy to the prom, or looks at photos of attractive male athletes, helps humanize a figure we have come to think of as a symbol rather than as a real person.
Things get a lot louder in Where To Invade Next, a return to form from filmmaker Michael Moore, who tours the globe looking for good ideas from other countries that he can import back to the U.S. These include things like eight-week vacations (from Italy), gourmet school lunches (from France), a smarter education system (from Finland, where students don’t do homework), and so on.
It’s a scattershot piece of cultural critique, but it’s often very funny — who but Moore would point out that Italian people often look like they’ve just had sex? — and it really is filled with good ideas. Seeing the delicious food served in French cafeterias compared with the Sloppy Joe hash that decorates American plates is part of an edgy travelogue of ideas, riffs and stray notions, all underlined with archival footage of U.S. excesses. A film festival is a good place for it.
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