Sunday, December 18, 2016

Going Home

Billy (Gordon Pinsent): It's finding the center of your story, the beating heart of it, that's what makes a reporter. You have to start by making up some headlines. You know: short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now, have a look, what do you see? [Points at dark clouds on the horizon] Tell me the headline.

Quoyle (Kevin Spacey): Horizon Fills With Dark Clouds?

Billy: Imminent Storm Threatens Village.

Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?

Billy: Village Spared From Deadly Storm.

Some actors and actresses become typecast because they play a certain kind of role so well.

When I saw Kevin Spacey in "The Shipping News," which made its big–screen debut on this day in 2001, I kind of had that sensation about him. He is always playing dysfunctional characters, I thought to myself.

That wasn't really fair. His characters aren't always dysfunctional — but his character in "The Shipping News" sure was.

In my experience dysfunctional people generally don't owe that condition to any one person or one event. Oh, sure, there are some who do, but for most it seems to have been an ongoing process to which many people and many events contributed. So it was with Spacey's character in "The Shipping News."

Some of it was beyond his control — his emotionally abusive father, for example — but some of it was simply the outcome of the kind of bad choice that most of us make at some point in our lives — like marrying the wrong person. In Spacey's case, that was Cate Blanchett, who played the town tramp (and was virtually unrecognizable); she gave Spacey a daughter and took off.

He got an answering machine message from his father, who hinted that he and his wife would be gone soon, presumably in a murder–suicide, and, it turned out, they were. Spacey barely had time to mourn that loss when he got news about his wife. She and her, uh, friend took a plunge off a bridge and died when the car hit the water.

His aunt (Judi Dench) stopped to see him as she was en route to the family's ancestral home in Newfoundland; Spacey and his daughter wound up accompanying her. He'd been an ink setter for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and naturally gravitated to the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird — but was hired as a reporter, not an ink setter. His standing assignment was to cover the shipping news — a pretty important beat in a seaside community.

He wasn't a trained journalist, but he took the initiative to write an article he hadn't been assigned to write. When it was published, to his surprise (and to the surprise of his co–workers), his publisher (Scott Glenn) liked it well enough to make him a columnist.

He also became friendly with a young widow named Wavey (Julianne Moore).

Wavey lost her husband when his ship went down during a storm. I thought one of her most powerful lines must surely resonate with people who have lost someone to whom they were close — in other words, everyone.

"It was four years ago," she said of the loss, "and it was yesterday."

That was a realistic observation, I thought then (and still think today; my hat is off to whoever wrote that line). When you lose someone close to you, the moment you experienced the loss is always lurking just beneath the surface. No matter how much times passes, it doesn't take much to bring back the sharpness of the pain as if it were happening for the first time.

I was impressed with that — but mostly, I think, I was impressed with the portrayal of a small–town newspaper office and staff. I have worked for newspapers large and small, and the atmosphere in a small newspaper office is special. You know you aren't likely to be or work with a Pulitzer Prize winner at a small–town newspaper — after all, William Allen Whites are few and far between — but the work that is done at a small–town newspaper every day truly is the embodiment of what community journalism is all about. It may not be exciting or particularly interesting to anyone outside what may be a rather narrow circulation area, but to those readers in your newspaper's readership, local news is important to them — and there is nowhere else they can get it.

Not even in the digital age.

But there is a dark side to small–town newspapers, and Spacey encountered it in the form of the editor, who apparently made it his mission to get Spacey's character fired. If you haven't seen the movie, you'll have to watch it to find out whether he succeeded.

Well, I guess there is probably at least one sociopathic personality in every newsroom, even the small ones. I'm sure it isn't limited to newsrooms, though. Perhaps there is one in every workplace.

But it didn't stop Spacey's character.