Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, The Visitor) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Fringe) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, and is about six Boston Globe reporters who uncover a massive cover up of priests who assaulted children all over the city. As docudrama, Spotlight delivers a powerful and moving truth, that the church, and to a huge degree the city of Boston, swept facts under a rug to allowed pedophiles to continue to prey on their young victims.
The story follows the journalists who discover that the Catholic Church, via Cardinal Law and the clergy’s system itself, actively sanctioned the cover-ups and repeatedly moved priests who were pedophiles and sexual predators. As the team of investigative reporters work to find answers and question new sources, the world carries on and a city’s officials continue to look the other way.
In many ways this is an old fashioned sort of film, harking back to the days of All the President’s Men, Erin Brockovich or even, with a bit of a stretch, Silkwood. Granted, only the Woodward, Bernstein film is about reporters uncovering a very inconvenient truth, but all of the films deal with coverups by people who should have known better. Out of the lot, Spotlight deals with something that both offends and dismays; an institution whose figureheads are the Pope and St Mary that condoned the molestation of children.
The title of the film refers to an investigative branch of The Boston Globe who work tirelessly to learn the truth behind allegations that priests were sexually abusing children throughout Boston and that the church, rather than punish those who transgressed, were just moving them on to another diocese. The list ultimately contained 87 names of priests who were sexual predators that the church, and the city, protected.
As a result of their investigative efforts the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage. Just as the film is evocative of other “whistle blower” films, or films about coverups, political and otherwise, the story also feels like a “throw-back” to proper journalism and those investigative reporters who worked so tirelessly to learn the truth. It could, in fact, serve as a training template for new journalists.
Spotlight is not shot in a manner to cause excitement, the hues of color in each scene feel like a blend of Boston coffee house and harsh office lighting. The ambiance of the sets, which feel as real as any reporters cubicle desk back in the old days, lends a sense of reality to the journey these investigative journalists underwent to finally put all the pieces together.
The acting is grim, real and underplayed. There are scenes of raw emotion, I defy anyone watching not to become emotional during Michael Rezendes’ outburst later in the film. Mark Ruffalo, as Rezendes, brings a deep seated intensity to his depiction of the “head” reporter on the case. The Hulk actor has proven more often than not that he is destined to play more than a great green “Avenger” with anger management problems.
Michael Keaton now seems to have returned to the screen in earnest. After his prolonged absence and brilliant return in the Oscar winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014, Keaton proves with his depiction of Spotlight head Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson that his chops have not dulled in his absence.
Powerful, and moving performances were given by all. Even Liev Schreiber, who played the smaller, but relatively important role of The Boston Globe’s “new boss” gives an impressively nuanced picture of the Jewish executive editor who tasks his investigative branch to take on the city of Boston and the Catholic Church.
There are a number of familiar faces in this “biopic” docudrama. All are beyond excellent, from Rachel McAdams’s role of the reporter whose Nan took her to church every Sunday to family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) who becomes upset when he realizes that two of these pedophile priests live in his neighborhood.
Spotlight works on a few levels, initially it shows, via the mundane nature of fact finding and “door knocking” by the team, just how sources should be found, vetted and questioned. “Old fashioned newspaper work” feet on the ground, research, and solid investigation are the order of the day. The editors, all the ones “in the loop,” continually question their reporters on their status and waver between dropping the case and continuing.
Another factor, not mentioned in the film, but one that anyone in the journalistic field will be aware of is that this all took place not long after the “crucification” of investigative journalist Gary Webb. (The film Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner tells about this travesty which took place in the mid 1990s.)
This story has long reaching ramifications for the church. The story of sexual predators as priests and their victims coming forward could have been buried when 9/11 occurred. (The twin towers were attacked during the investigation.) In all likelihood the entire sickening episode would have received more attention had 9/11 not taken place.
Spotlight is a re-creation of events that took place in the early 2000s. While in some instances it feels a little like a newspaper version of Dragnet, it lacks the harsh delivery of the hit television show about Joe Friday. Instead it gives us a sober look at the less pleasant side of reporting and shows how investigative work should be done.
McCarthy allows us to see the pain, doubt and indecision behind the actions taken by the investigative team and all the people they interact with. There may be elements of the “coverup” genre (which arguably should be a genre all its own) but the message is simple:
Any organization, despite its intent, is capable of protecting its own.
Just like the police force closes ranks when a brother (or sister) in blue commits an offense, so too the Catholic Church closed ranks to protect its pedophiles.
Spotlight is easily one of the top ten films of 2015 that should be seen by all. Not just a message film, or even biopic per se, it is powerful indictment of the old fashioned virtues of the press that is missing in this day and age of Internet news and citizen journalists.
A 4 out of 5 star film that you will feel compelled to watch at least twice, if not more.
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