Break the story. Break the silence.
‘When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal,’ says Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a Boston man who was molested by a cleric when he was only 11 years of age. ‘How do you say no to God?’ he asks. It’s moments like these that make Spotlight a tough watch, especially if one considers oneself a (devout) Catholic. Despite its heavy content, Spotlight is a movie that deserves to be seen. Why? Well, the picture explores a very delicate subject — the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of its widespread pedophilia (which was carried out by more than 70 Massachusetts priests) — yet co-writer-director Tom McCarthy presents the material in such a confident and thoughtful manner (it’s never sensationalized nor exploitative) and pays tribute to the victims of the abuse, illustrating how this corruption was unearthed whilst exploring those guilty and the journalists brave enough to expose them.
For those who aren’t in the know, Spotlight tells the riveting true story of The Boston Globe’s prize-winning team of dedicated investigative journalists ‘Spotlight,’ who in 2002 shook the city (and the world) by revealing one of the biggest cover-ups of modern times. Let’s back track for a second and rewind to 2001 when The Boston Globe went through a change in leadership. Enter Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Miami editor looking to boost the Globe’s readership by tackling more taboo issues. In the summer of that same year he advised the Spotlight team to follow up on a story about a local priest, John Geoghan, and a lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who stated that the Archbishop of Boston knew that Geoghan had been abusing dozens of young parishioners but did nothing to stop him — a story that had been buried at the paper for ten years, even though they had evidence of these allegations well before the Spotlight team started their inquiry.
Skeptical whether their newspaper — whose readers and staffers were mostly Irish-Catholic — could take on the story, Spotlight editor and Bostonian Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) delve into the account which turns out to be much more wide-reaching than any of the squad could’ve imagined. As the team speak with victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian, interview adults who were molested as kids, sift through old newspaper clippings (the internet only just becoming a major player post 9/11) and pursue the release of sealed court documents (that protected the identities of other possible victims), the close knit group begin to feel the grind. In order to uncover the Church’s methodical protection of its predatory members, it’s eventually made clear that the Spotlight crew will have to expose the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) — presented as a stereotypical bureaucratic figure here — who was also aware of the problem but simply chose to ignore it.
Let’s just get it right out of the way, shall we? Spotlight is not the Church-bashing flick it could have been. Instead, this biographical drama, written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, The Fifth Estate (2013), is an accurate, dialogue-heavy account that’s based on a series of stories by the real Spotlight team, which earned The Globe the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. Okay, the film’s riddled with journo clichés (it’s filled with disheveled dudes who apparently work longer hours than most), however it remains grounded and respectful throughout, highlighting those affected as the real heroes, opposed to the reporters who exposed the scandal. In regards to this, there’s a moving scene where victim Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Fr. Paul Shanley, which offers some insight into the psychology of the abusers and the abused. There’s another moment when McAdams’s character visits a seemingly friendly retired priest and straight-out asks him if he’s ever molested a child. The answer is both shocking and startling. There are no flashy visuals here, there is no snazzy editing, just raw, rapid-fire storytelling; it’s hard to believe that this excellent feature was directed by the same guy who brought us the Adam Sandler stinker The Cobbler (2014), but I guess everyone’s entitled their one dud!
To get back to the point, McCarthy cunningly shies away from the paranoia angle with this one — you know, the notion that the Church will come after anyone who challenges its authority — and alternately focuses on the procedural of the inquest, filmmakers steering clear from anything that might leave too much of a sour taste in viewer’s mouths. Additionally, there is little mention of ‘God’ when delving into these dark waters (a wise choice indeed); no angry questions posing, ‘Why would God allow such horrific acts to take place?’ or ‘How could a man of the cloth do this?’ the narrative stressing that the Church, although ‘divinely founded’ and guided by a ‘celestial entity,’ is run by ‘man’ and can therefore still be sinful, given man’s free will — even those who hold authority or are part of a community that embraces ethics and principles can be corrupt.
Michael Keaton, who portrayed a stressed-out city desk editor in Ron Howard’s 1994 newspaper drama The Paper, plays a similar role here, with Keaton heading this ensemble as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, a strong, gentle and winsome editor seeking redemption. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher (2014), brings charismatic depth to his role as reporter Michael Rezendes, with the lapsed Catholic venting out his anxiety and frustration over the many setbacks that the examination faced. Rachel McAdams, Southpaw (2015), adds a nice feminine touch to the team as Sacha Pfeiffer, another one-time Catholic who’s deeply disturbed by the silence that made the church’s culture of maltreatment possible. Stage and screen actor Brian d’Arcy James, Smash (2012), is solid as Matt Carroll, a researcher personally affected by some of the faction’s findings. Elsewhere Liev Schreiber, X‑Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), portrays Boston Globe’s executive editor Marty Baron with a quiet resoluteness, Schreiber delivering a multilayered rendering of the first Jew to call the shots at the Globe whilst Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games (2012), makes the most of his role as the grumpy attorney Mitchell Garabedian, a guy who’s weary of everyone yet has made it his mission in life help those who were harmed by the Church. Last but not least, Billy Crudup, Almost Famous (2000), plays Eric Macleish, a lawyer who swings from good guy to bad guy, before finishing up somewhere in between.
Wrapping on the day of the big story (there were over 600 other pieces run about the scandal in the following months) Spotlight can be a touch sit-through for some, though it’s never tedious. Be that as it may, the film aims its attention towards the cold, hard facts and the shock of the revelation rather than the aftermath that rocked the globe. Sure, the flick is destined to divide audiences and cause some kind of controversy, chiefly by the Catholic Church who is possibly unhappy about having to revisit the topic. At the end of the day, Spotlight is a compelling piece of cinema, one that serves as a paean to the lost art of journalism and dares to unfold a conspiracy that deserves, well … the ‘spotlight.’ With the exception of say, All The President’s Men (1976), this is probably the second best journo picture ever produced. And oh, pay no attention to a silly moment that depicts the Globe totally deserted on a Sunday when it’s supposed to be a daily publication. Seriously, who’s working on the Monday edition?
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Spotlight is released through eOne Films Australia