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How Michael Keaton Became America’s Moral Compass

‘In American film, there is no one better at portraying people in positions of power facing unique moral challenges and decisions in a world where consensus seems to have vanished’

The wrenching Hulu series Dopesick wrapped up earlier this month, coming full-circle from where it started, with guilt-ridden Dr. Samuel Finnix (played impeccably by Michael Keaton) on a witness stand saying he can’t believe how many of his former patients are dead because of the Oxycontin that he prescribed to them. Finnix himself succumbed to the “revolutionary” pain pills after getting injured in a car crash. His arc from small-town doctor in the fictional mining town of Finch Creek, Virginia, to disgraced opioid addict is the backbone of Dopesick, paralleled by a young female patient of his who didn’t make it out alive. 

“Keaton’s ability to go from benevolent light to intense darkness felt effortless,” says Danny Strong, Dopesick’s creator and showrunner. “His scenes weren’t shot in sequence, so on any given day, he had to play the beloved country doctor, the raging drug addict or the guilt-ridden elderly man in recovery. It was wild watching him work through all the dimensions of the character.” 

There are plenty of harrowing scenes in Dopesick, but one particular wordless moment stands out. It takes place in Episode Six, “Hammer the Abusers,” when Finnix (a composite of a number of doctors who got hooked on their own supply) leaves rehab for the first time, deathly afraid the drugs still have a hold on him, not really knowing what to do next. For a long beat, backed only by the sounds of birds and far-off train whistles, he stands frozen, the meaning of a man’s former-and-future existence played out brilliantly on the wary face of Michael Keaton. 

Dopesick is one of a string of great performances by Keaton, an actor who, without much fanfare, has become the film world’s conscience in recent years. There’s a reason Aaron Sorkin dropped Keaton into the middle of The Trial of the Chicago 7 as “star witness” Ramsey Clark, it’s because he needed an instantly recognizable actor who exudes forthrightness. (And still Sorkin-ed Clark’s role in the proceedings a bit.) In each of these roles, Keaton is a trusted cinematic companion for our better angels, even when he’s conning the audience right alongside two naive friendly brothers with an amazing hamburger stand in The Founder.

“In the beginning of The Founder, Ray Kroc isn’t shady, he’s desperate. He’s Willy Loman and the movie only works if the audience wants to trust Kroc,” says Rob Siegel, screenwriter of The Founder. “Since it’s Michael Keaton, you believe in him, even if all the clues about who Kroc is are right there. His speeches about McDonald’s franchises being the American dream are so dynamic that the characters and the audience choose to trust him. And then it’s, How the fuck did I fall for that guy?’” 

Siegel, who has a framed pic in his apartment of Keaton as a yarmulke-d Kroc soliciting potential franchisees at a schul, says one of the things Keaton tapped into was the hamburger king’s self-loathing — right down to his Slavic name, heavy boozing and mantra to “get it right just one time.” There is plenty of showmanship in Keaton’s Kroc — there had to be for him to swipe the keys to the McDonald’s castle — but it’s the lonelier moments on the road, or the mockery by his alleged peers at a country club, that define him. 

For a man whose film career started as a wild goofball with a get-rich-quick tuna fish scheme to “feed the fish mayonnaise… call Starkist,” underplaying scenes has become one of Keaton’s great attributes. In Spotlight, he plays the main character, Boston Globe editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson, the steadying hand of the journalists surreptiously investigating the child sex abuse by local Catholic priests. He anchors the film without speechifying, raising his voice or even getting to do his own shoe-leather reporting. It’s a remarkable example of restraint, letting the story be about getting the story, but also letting the powers-that-be know he isn’t one of them, not anymore at least, with a blunt “Is that why we’re here, to get on the same page?”

In the most important scene in the movie, when Robby finally gets the confirmation he needs to publish the story of the Archdiocese abetting and covering up the abuse, he stoically shivers in the cold saying exactly four words: “I don’t know, Jim.” In the wrong hands, the scenery could have been chewed from Fall River and back, but Keaton playing the journalistic triumph close to the vest makes it all the more powerful. 

“Michael stole my identity,” says the real Walter “Robbie” Robinson. “He spent two weeks studying my accent and mannerisms before we first met, and then we talked at length about how we went about our reporting, and how we think as journalists. Michael got me so right that if he robbed a bank, the cops would arrest me.”

Keaton has a character actor’s lack of vanity, which makes the performances feel right. He looks the part of a 70-year-old man because that’s what he became this year. The Founder opens with a close-up of Kroc preparing a speech, crow’s feet and all, and Spotlight has him asking a co-worker to read something to him because he doesn’t have his glasses. What’s left of his hair is grey, and his septuagenarian visage hasn’t been warped by plastic surgery. Keaton has the perfect ruddy Iook for diving into typical American male archetypes. He doesn’t truck in earnestness or sentimentality, there’s too much world-weariness there. Even at his most heroic, Keaton exudes skepticism, assessing every situation with a circumspect eye, attempting to get a sense of all the angles in real time.

“In American film, there is no one better at portraying people in positions of power facing unique moral challenges and decisions in a world where consensus seems to have vanished,” says Robinson.

So who better to play an opera-obsessed Jewish lawyer from Boston tasked with solving one of the greatest questions about the very nature of humanity — how much is a human life worth? — than Keaton? 

“When producer Sean Sorensen reached out to me in 2007, with an offer to pay an annual fee for exclusive rights to make a movie of my book [What Is Life Worth?], I told him he was wasting his money because no screenplay could accurately portray what I went through, the atmosphere, the tension and stress,” says Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. “Sean, however, stayed true to his word, and I gladly ended up being wrong.”

Worth tells the story of how Feinberg (played by Keaton) and his law partner Camille Biros (played by Amy Ryan) went about the incredibly complex and challenging task of coming up with a compensation formula that required assigning dollar values to each of the 3,000 lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, getting the victims families to sign on and then disbursing some $7 billion. It was as monumental a task as has ever existed, but Feinberg and his team pulled it off, expertly re-created in Worth

“One of the things Keaton found most positive about taking on the role, is it’s an opportunity to remind, or educate, American people about the value of one community,” Feinberg tells me. “In the aftermath of 9/11, there was apolitical bipartisan expression of national unity toward the victims and their families.”

As for Dr. Samuel Finnix and Dopesick, it ends with him, medical license restored, running the Mountain Ridge Wellness Center, seeing patients and once again trying to stay clean and sober. He, of course, has the last word of the mini-series, telling a room full of his fellow addicts that by working through pain and trying to overcome it, “we just might find our better selves.” 

It’s a deeply humane moment, yet another in the golden age of Michael Keaton. “He’s dedicated the latter half of his career to shining a light on social injustice,” says Strong. “Through his dramatic storytelling, Michael Keaton has become America’s moral compass.”