Movie reviews: Spotlight, The 33, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Based on the true story of how the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ investigative team broke the story of institutionalised sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church in the city of Boston, Spotlight (15A) is both timely in its subject matter and something of a throwback in its form and delivery. 

Directed by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, the story opens in 1976, with the hushing up of accusations of molestation by a Boston priest. The story then fast-forwards to 2001, and the appointment of a new editor to the Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). 

Tasked with streamlining the Globe’s operations, Baron targets the ‘Spotlight’ team, led by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), which specialises in investigative journalism that may take many months, or even years, to bear fruit.

What follows is a tense tale of journalistic intrigue reminiscent of All the President’s Men as Robinson and his team — which includes Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) — begin to realise that the drip-drip of information relating to the abuse of children by priests may well signify ‘a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon’ among the clergy. 

The early stages depend heavily on exposition-as-dialogue as McCarthy sets the scene, but soon the story unfolds as a series of devastating revelations, even as McCarthy sets the central investigation against the artfully sketched backdrop of the political and commercial pressures that come to bear on the Globe, especially given Boston’s dominant Catholic-Irish demographic. 

Schreiber, Keaton and Ruffalo are all excellent in a superbly balanced ensemble piece that functions equally as a mature, investigative thriller and an elegy for old journalism, as the ‘Spotlight’ team lays bare both the appalling scale of the Catholic Church’s abuse and its reprehensible cover-up.

The 33 (12A) is also based on a true story, in this case the Chilean miners who were buried alive for 69 days in 2010 when the honeycombed gold-copper mine where they were working collapsed on top of them.

Trapped 200 stories underground, with very little food and water, and with temperatures beneath the Atacama Desert topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the miners have no way of knowing if anyone is even trying to dig them out. 

Adapted from Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark, Patricia Riggen’s film might seem from the outset to be rather handicapped in terms of tension, given that the audience will likely know the story’s outcome.

In fact, Riggen does a superb job of investing the tale with narrative intensity, her task helped in no small part by the brilliantly evoked claustrophobic nature of the men’s confinement, as the men – led by Mario (Antonio Banderas), Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Yonni (Oscar Nunez) — struggle with apathy, despair and hunger. 

It’s a pacy story too, given that the story switches back and forth from the bowels of the earth to the surface, where Maria (Juliette Binoche) leads a protest by the miners’ families that forces the government to take action. 

The result is a powerful affirmation of the human instinct to survive, a story that, while clumsy at times in terms of its broad-stroke characterisations and dialogue, is nevertheless a compelling emotional rollercoaster.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (15A) is yet another movie rooted in recent historical events, in this case the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012.

When ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) dies in the first assault, the consulate staff withdraws to the fortified CIA compound nearby, where they find themselves under siege with only six ex-military operatives — among them Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) and ‘Tanto’ Paranto (Pablo Schreiber) — standing between them and massacre. 

Directed by Michael Bay, 13 Hours superbly captures the chaotic nature of urban warfare, and for the most part Bay manages to maintain the gripping tension of the siege, despite the movie’s 144 minute running time.

That should come as no surprise, given that Hollywood has been telling this story for almost a century now, but the ‘Alamo bullshit’, as one character describes their situation, has a timeless appeal — the consulate staff are essentially holed up in a remote fort praying the cavalry arrives. 

The testosterone overload grows wearying after a while, and the championing of American values grows increasingly irritating, not least because the narrative is bereft of all but most cursory cultural sensitivities and the broader political context in Libya.

That said, it’s a powerful, thrilling and sobering war movie, albeit one that turns Bill Clinton’s dictum that ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’ completely on its head.

Spotlight *****

The 33 ***

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi ***


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