Saturday, May 28, 2016

Villainy: Spotlight and The Night Manager

One of the defects of real life is its lack of villains.  Even Donald Trump, so people say who have been granted an audience with the great man, is charming in person, friendly, and accommodating.  Art repairs this deficit by devising scenarios in which ordinary, banal evil is concentrated in the character of a villain.  The popular cinema is enamored with villainy -- indeed, a film's success can sometimes be measured in terms of the charisma of its villain.  By this standard, the six-part AMC mini-series, The Night Manager, is a great triumph.  Conversely, the Oscar-awarded Spotlight is notably deficient with respect to "hiss-able" villainy and it is worth considering whether this detracts from that film's merit.

The Night Manager is adapted from a novel by John LeCarre and features Hugh Laurie as the bad guy, Richard Roper.  Laurie (with LeCarre) is a producer of the film and he appears in, at least, half of the scenes in the six-hour show.  One can see why Laurie was sufficiently interested in this material to produce this lavishly staged and opulent mini-series -- Richard Roper is characterized as "the worst man in the world" in the opening 15 minutes and Laurie does everything to make his character live up to that reputation.  The series' premise is that Roper is an international arms dealer masquerading as a humanitarian-supplier of agricultural equipment.  His adversaries are a black American spy-master (the actors has huge protruding ears and, amusingly, imitates Obama's hipster cadences) and a heavily pregnant bureaucrat employed in some covert department in Britain's M6.  Roper's vast wealth has corrupted everyone, including the unctuous officials who employ the pregnant intelligence analyst -- whenever she gets close to busting Roper, information is leaked to allow him to wiggle out of adversity.  And, from time to time, the person's complicit with Roper in her ministry try to shut down her operations.  The pregnant analyst, driven by a backstory involving children killed by Roper's weapons in Kurdistan, plants an agent in Roper's household -- this is the titular "night manager," an existential loner and war veteran, played by Tom Hiddleston.  Hiddleston's hunky soldier-of-fortune is also driven by a Jacobean back-story -- a woman that he loved in Cairo was murdered by Roper's agents when she stumbled into evidence of his arms business.  Most of the show involves an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the double-agent night manager and Roper -- at stakes of this conflict include napalm, chemical weapons, and all sorts of horrendous armaments (barrel bombs for instance) and Roper's girlfriend, a cool, if secretly tormented, American blonde bombshell who succumbs, of course, to Hiddleston's charms.  There's nothing innovative in this material -- in fact, the show resembles a slow-moving James Bond film:  the action is set in spectacular locations such as Mallorca where Roper has a sea-side fortress of solitude and involves much carousing in expensive restaurants and casinos.  There are beautiful women who offer themselves to the brave and heroic hero and, then, are tortured for their love as well as lots of MacGuffin-like documents, inventories of armaments that the spies are always stealing and using to blackmail one another.  The Night Manager, living in Nietzschean solitude in a concrete bunker somewhere near the Matterhorn -- he is grieving the death of his love in Cairo -- is recruited by the pregnant lady spy-master to infiltrate Roper's operation.  She, then, monitors his close-calls and various adventures until the climactic confrontation in Cairo -- with her African-American CIA-buddy (probably a former lover), the pregnant lady faces down Richard Roper, and, of course, with the help of the Night Manager, destroys him.  This is standard stuff but given authority by the bravura performance by Hugh Laurie -- Laurie embodies a particularly British kind of malevolence:  he thrusts out his lower jaw pugnaciously like Churchill and glowers at everyone with great bulging eyes.  Like George W. Bush, he has given all of his henchmen nicknames -- his chief torturer is called "Frisky" and his dwarfish homosexual consiglieri is named "Corky."  Roper's menace arises from his high degree of vigilance -- he watches everyone around him with his malign, immense eyes, fixes people in his baleful laser-gaze and penetrates to their deepest secrets.  Of course, he is fantastically powerful and cruel -- he has his mistress tortured and threatens to disfigure her and his opponents are ruthlessly savaged and killed.  Like Iago, he maintains his villainy up to the bitter end -- dragged away in handcuffs, Roper exclaims to his pregnant adversary:  "A wonderful world to bring a child into!"  All of this is staged with great aplomb and conviction -- there is a huge and spectacular demonstration of armaments in the Turkish desert, including a vast napalm drop that allows Roper's to utter a variant on Robert Duvall's famous lines about "napalm in the morning" from Apocalypse Now.  (Needless to say, the impressive napalm blast manages to kill some innocents -- when their charred bodies are brought to Roper for compensation, he has everyone else in the family killed as well.)   Laurie plays the part of the villain enthusiastically -- it's a role in which "to tear a cat" to use Shakespeare's phrase.  The show works on the audience's most primitive impulses -- about half-way through, we begin to desire to see Roper's comeuppance.  Justice requires that evil be punished and the more viciously Roper acts, the more the audience desires his punishment.  In the end, the blandly handsome Hiddleston contrives an elaborate double-cross, Roper is caught in the coils of his own evil, and richly rewarded for his iniquity -- exactly what we have been hoping for three hours to see.  The Night Manager is likewise rewarded for his courage by succeeding to the sexual charms of Roper's beautiful American mistress, who has suffered for her love of the hero.  On all levels, the show is emotionally effective -- good triumphs and villainy on an almost cosmic level is punished.  There isn't anything profound about the show --it's all glittering surfaces, but the director Susan Blier keeps things moving briskly, there are gorgeous sets full of beautiful people, some of the action and suspense sequences are thrilling, and the show can be praised as an entertainment of a high order.

Spotlight (2015) is a film directed by Tom McCarthy that details the efforts of a group of Boston Globe journalists to expose a child sexual abuse scandal systemic to the Catholic church in that city.  The film features superb ensemble acting with respect to the crusading journalists who include Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo.  These journalists comprise the so-called "Spotlight" investigative reporting team and they are under the command of a steely, imperturbable Jewish publisher played by Liev Schreiber.  The film is scrupulously realistic.  I was concerned that the movie, focused entirely on a journalistic investigation, would feature Aaron Sorkin style razzamatazz -- that is, baroque threats, elaborate and programmatic speeches, vehement and continuous insults, spectacular profanity/obscenity, and emotional outbursts about every ten minutes.  In fact, the tone of the film is almost hushed -- everyone is polite and there is almost no obscenity. There is only one outburst, a brief and impassioned speech by Ruffalo's character, that is met by Michael Keaton's simple response:  "Are you done?"  Everyone about the film feels realistic -- the people interact professionally, the lawyers are all suitably discrete and close-mouthed, even the wicked church officials seem plausibly low-key, indifferent, people so ensconced in their positions of privilege and power that they aren't even indignant about the challenges posed to them by the reporters.  The film's irony is that the elaborate investigation seeks facts that are hidden in plain-sight.  The documents central to the film (and this movie involves just as many secret documents as The Night Manager) turn out to be of public record.  The investigation doesn't uncover anything that people haven't known for many years.  Indeed, there is even an element of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in the film -- at the climax, if you can name the film's low-key denouement with that term, the crusading journalists discover that they have been complicit themselves in the cover-up that they are now exposing.  The theme of the film is summed-up clearly enough in one of the statements made by a character:  "If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to cover-up the sexual abuse of a child."  Everything about this film is admirable and it is wholly fascinating -- the film follows the investigation single-mindedly:  there are no deviations for romance and the characters, all obsessives, seem to have little or no personal lives -- they are exclusively devoted to their careers.  The Boston milieu is well-observed and there is no point at which a viewer might resist this film on the basis of plausibility -- everything about the movie seems true.  On the other hand, it is also noteworthy that the film has no villain and no villainy.  At one point, a reporter meets one of the priests who has molested hundreds of children -- he's a bespectacled old man with the demeanor of a confused owl who insists that he derived no pleasure from his sexual encounters, all of which he admits without a twinge of guilt. (The man's savage-looking harridan-sister intervenes to protect him from the astonished lady-journalist).  Clearly, this guy is an inadequate villain to shoulder the weight of iniquity that the journalists have exposed.  Everyone knows that the crime is institutional -- this is described and analyzed as a necessary result of code of celibacy that less than half of its supposed adherents practice -- and, indeed, there is no doubt that the corruption extends to the Vatican itself, but none of this is crystallized in the form of any specific villain.  The Church's misconduct remains institutional, without much of a human face -- the befuddled child molester that we see is like the victims also shown in the film, touchingly human, confused, and, more or less, powerless.  The absence of a villain in Spotlight is certainly noteworthy -- and, probably, pragmatic:  I think the film may have offended big swaths of the public if more villainy on the part of the clerks and prelates were shown.  Instead, the evil is "in the air" as it were, not concentrated in any emblematic figure.  As a result, Spotlight feels just a little bit abstract and bloodless -- the film's primary rhetorical effect is irony:  the newspaper publishes to great fanfare information about scandals that was a matter of public record and that is well-known by all and that was, apparently, simply forgotten.  It seems that we are doomed to "discover" these crimes, pretend to address them, forget them, and, then, rediscover the scandal about every twenty years. The movie is honest enough to not dramatize anything -- in the final scene, we see one of the plaintiff-lawyers about to meet with two children that have been sexually abused by priests.  The lawyer is flawed, fanatical obsessive.  The two children, seated with their drab-looking mother, are vigorously coloring in coloring books -- they look exactly like children that you and I know.  There is nothing special about any of these people.  But this raises the question -- when a subject involves serious and abiding evil, isn't it, perhaps, aappropriate to distill that evil into the figure of a villain?  Or is that just a cheap-shot that simplifies and consoles but also falsifies reality?

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