In 2001-02, an elite investigative team at the Boston Globe exposed the pandemic sexual abuse carried on by Catholic priests. How well does Spotlight illuminate the subject?
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
It started with a lone column published in the Boston Globe about an accusation of sexual abuse perpetrated by one “bad apple” priest. Newly appointed Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), surprised at the lack of articles addressing this issue, requested that the Globe’s investigative team of “Spotlight” delve deeper into the diocese. And then all hell broke loose.
With Spotlight, director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Visitor, The Station Agent) crafts a film that examines the victims, predators and the corrupt diocese as much as it considers Boston’s staunch parishioners who’ve turned a deaf ear to any whisperings of wrongdoings for decades. Even the Boston Globe gets a slap for looking the other way when, in previous years, information that had been sent to the paper had been buried. But the resistance is not all that surprising: after all, it’s Boston, a city awash in holy water like none other, numbering a Catholic population of 53% in 2001. The religion casts an all-pervasive shadow, visually depicted by the multitude of exterior shots that incorporate church spires ever-looming over its faithful.
When the Globe’s editors discover that the lone bad apple priest might be one among as many as 13, they’re shocked. Yet, in the second act, an unseen Deep Throat-like expert states that the metric is much closer to 6% of priests in any particular metropolis. Given the 1,500 priests in Beantown, the offenders would total 90. The Spotlight team, either Catholic or lapsed, can’t quite grasp the enormity of that figure.
Deciding to turn the Globe’s Pultizer Prize story into a movie was a great idea … but Spotlight might have benefitted from another director. As well as a strict editor. In his previous films, McCarthy has done brilliant work in helming character-driven stories, showcasing actors in unforgettable performances. Such as Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale in The Station Agent, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor and once again, Bobby Cannavale, in Win Win. But here, McCarthy tries on a new genre – and the fit isn’t quite right. The film feels muffled, constricted. And nowhere near the neighborhood of his earlier, marvelous work.
Spotlight‘s current comparisons to Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men are appropriate, in that both films are true stories based on crackerjack news teams whose initial investigations led them straight to the highest rung of power. (We even get another steely-eyed editor named Ben Bradlee … in this case John Slattery’s Ben Bradlee Jr.) But where Pakula delivered a movie with breathless tension, Spotlight’s electricity is akin to a brownout. Sometimes a strong surge, sometimes a mere flicker. And woefully, a sporadic pinpoint can’t hold a candle to a flood.
Additionally, McCarthy’s and Josh Singer’s screenplay is not without holes. We’re told that attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) may be an unreliable, off-kilter character. As he roars off-camera behind his office’s closed doors, we anticipate meeting an outsized wacko. Yet when he finally makes his appearance, we are introduced to an extremely busy, abrupt yet sincere man who tirelessly crusades for victims of abuse. Eccentric? Unstable? Not at all. In another instance, it’s stated that the team may be in danger if they continue their research. And yet nothing comes to pass.
That said, the performances are strong, yet always in service of the story. Mark Ruffalo shines as the energetic Spotlight team member Mike Rezendes who, as a lapsed Catholic, fairly salivates at the idea of invading the sanctuary of the church. Schreiber gives an uncharacteristically quiet, measured turn as the new editor Baron, a Jewish outsider who is unfazed by pressure to drop the investigation. When Cardinal Law (a wonderfully unctuous Len Cariou) suggests that the Church and the paper amiably coexist — “The city flourishes when its great institutions work together” — Baron demurs, stating, “No, a paper should stand alone.” The Spotlight team, a determined bunch of the pasty-faced faithful, makes for a smooth ensemble. They answer to Michael Keaton’s conflicted editor Robby, who may be guilty of having ignored the crisis much earlier. And Stanley Tucci delivers another fine performance as the workaholic lawyer, a man whose steely glint hints at his underbelly of fury.
Spotlight is highly affecting when it examines the predators who purposely targeted lower-class children from broken homes, knowing these kids would be too ashamed to accuse. Attempting to explain his actions, a victim says, “How do you say no to God?” And by focusing on three of these now-adult victims — a drug-addict dad, a crushingly sad gay man, and an angry, defiant self-help leader — the crimes are made all the more tangible.
Given the worldwide attention that this 2002 Boston Globe exposé received, we’d like to believe that by now, all vestiges of this horrific pedophilia have been eradicated. However, as the end titles read, “In the years since Spotlight’s report, sexual abuse by Catholic Church priests has been uncovered in 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world wide.” And for all of Pope Francis’ recent assurances that he has a commission looking into the ongoing criminality, journalist Paul Vallely stated in an NPR interview that “Pope Francis has an ambivalence. One of the things that he’s worried about is people making false allegations against priests.” Which seems perfectly aligned to his speech last September, praising a gathering of U.S. bishops for their courage in handling the crisis, consoling them for how stressful it had been.
Wow. While the film isn’t perfect, Spotlight serves as a searing reminder that a great number of abusing priests once hid under papal robes. Even worse … they’re still hiding today.
Rating on a scale of 5 Cardinal sins: 3.5
Release date: (ltd) November 6, 2015
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay by: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup
Running Time: 127 minutes