Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Stars: Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Len Cariou, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Cyril Creighton, Michael Keaton, Neal Huff, Paul Guilfoyle, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci
Released: January 29th, 2016 (UK)
Spotlight is a fine example of what perfect execution looks like. From the outset we are given the broad scope of the issue the film looks to tackle and from there we dive right into Boston, 2001 to meet the key players in the game the film will be playing. There are no hiccups, no time for second guesses and nothing narratively to take away from the main objective. Spotlight is a prime piece of meat with all of the fat trimmed and only the juiciest parts left so as to make the whole experience one of pure, concentrated excellence. That said, it is certainly an interesting case in a couple of areas. The first being that director Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, Win Win), who is generally regarded as both a solid writer and filmmaker, was coming off the worst reviewed film of his career a year ago with The Cobbler and so to bounce back so ferociously with this effortlessly intelligent thriller makes it clear there is something more to be said for the process of filmmaking. The other, is that this reviewer in particular is a Catholic. This is an influential piece of information considering Spotlight is about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into the Church’s sexual abuse scandal that gave cause for people everywhere (Catholic or not) to take a second look at one of our most respected and trusted institutions. Because the film plays it straight down the middle, with no time for subplots or unnecessary qualms no one party is ever viewed unfairly, but rather the irrefutable facts presented allow the audience to make up their own minds.
Based around the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into the cover-up of the child molestation scandal by the local Archdiocese in Boston, the film specifically shines light on the newspaper’s “Spotlight” team. The reporters chosen for this four-man operation are investigative journalists, they delve deep into stories, most of the time for a year or more before anything goes to publication. In the summer of 2001, after new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) took over The Globe, the team soon began work on a story that seemed beyond impossible. Baron wanted to know why the outlet hadn’t run any major stories on the church abuse scandals and the court hearings surrounding those allegations. “Spotlight” editor Walter V. Robinson (Michael Keaton) jumps at the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the situation and so he and his team, including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), begin to dig. Uncovering a decades-long facade at the highest levels of not only Boston’s Catholic establishment, but their influence on the government as well as the newspaper itself (53% of their readership is Catholic) come to reveal not only the lack of attention from the police and media on the subject, but the fact lawyers have essentially been profiting from keeping these secrets under wraps for the Archdiocese. With more than enough evidence and truly fascinating insights into the reasonings behind these abuse cases Robinson and his team go after the system, intent on shaking loose the bad apples from the top down.
What is both the most encouraging and fascinating aspects of Spotlight though are the way in which it handles this massive story. This is both in the sense of the story the film is telling and the one the newspaper is tackling. Never does the audience feel out of the loop and never does the story feel too big to manage. Instead, McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) boil the main points of their compelling story into sharp exchanges between multiple characters, all of which we come to immediately understand what their function is as well as learn enough about them to know who they are. There is no time for deep dives into the personal lives of each of these reporters or how they might personally be affected through this investigation and so McCarthy and Singer allow the investigation itself to serve a dual role of being the puzzle we watch being put together and the details that fill in the holes of who our characters are beyond it. We learn that Rezendes is separated from his wife most likely because of his workaholic ways, that Pfeiffer is having something of a personal crisis given her grandmother goes to mass three or four times a week and that Carroll has the most typical family situation with this investigation even leaking into his Presbyterian life. There is little backstory to Keaton’s Robinson besides his strictly-business attitude, but his approach and willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this story show us the type of man this guy is.
Concerning the aforementioned conversations that expertly convey the necessary points of the story in order for it to remain coherent, the writing not only puts the necessary pieces of information into motion, but it brings up layers upon layers of interesting ideas and captivating insights that make this a film that is better than it even had to be. Robinson and his team are at first interested in uncovering the truth of how many priests have been accused of acting out sexually with children, tracking both them and a number of their victims down, but as the story continues to grow to reveal that lawyers have essentially been turning these child abuse cases into a business of their own and that the clergy have been keeping these cases secret for as long as they have the mission takes on a much broader focus. Baron, Robinson’s editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Robinson himself change their approach and shift the emphasis to the institution as a whole, recognizing that even the top officials were aware of such going-ons and did little more than move a priest from parish to parish when they acted out or were accused of anything inappropriate.
Beyond the factors that would come to provide the basis of this breaking news story it is the smaller, more nuanced aspects of the film that really make this deep dive into what causes these occurrences insanely interesting. Growing up Catholic, but never coming face to face with any of the issues that became the subject of this worldwide news and speculation I was forced to wonder why this seemed to be so common with something I was so familiar with and yet couldn’t have felt further from home. While there are many victims that are presented in the film to great effect, Michael Cyril Creighton and Neal Huff are most notable, it is the facets they bring to the surface about their circumstances that prove to be all the more engrossing. The way Huff’s character, Phil Saviano, tells of his encounter with a priest when he was young is one of not just physical abuse, but spiritual. That these predators not only steal your innocence, but your ability to believe or have faith is heartbreaking on a completely different level. Not one that is greater necessarily, but one that is intangible and unlikely to ever be regained. That the priests intentionally seek out these fractured kids from low-income and broken homes so that they might find greater favor and therefore a more willing mentality is disgusting. Pair this with the fact most of these priests went after young boys not because they were gay, but because boys are less likely to talk (especially in Boston) make it all the more diabolical. The film slyly shows the effects on these victims as they grow older, many of them turning to the drink, needles or jumping off bridges as a way to escape the memories. No matter the converging interests of parent companies or the possibility of alienating a large portion of their readership these investigators follow every lead to get the story right for these victims.
Furthermore, concerning the vow of celibacy that priests are required to take and how this largely doesn’t work in the church’s favor Spotlight also shines it’s light on the fact these occurrences could be categorized as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon. Are priests emotionally stunted? The film asks, but per it’s style doesn’t provide an answer. It wants you to consider these things and not just dismiss them. That the church knows and understands the fact 50% of their clergy are not celibate (though most are having sex with other adults) and instead of doing something about it create a culture of secrecy is beyond telling. That a piece of information such as 6% of all priests molest children (from a metric standpoint) is presented only as a way to propel the film’s story forward rather than as a way of commending itself for making this fact more known makes it feel all the more substantial and important without ever being exploitative. This is the special power that Spotlightpossesses. It is a quiet film about a very loud topic. It is a hectic and weighty story that is delivered in an efficiently paced and supremely organized package. It understands there is no one side to a story and allows different perspectives even from within the “Spotlight” team to be recognized giving the story a balanced and equal tone rather than a vindictive one. “Why do you want to do this story? Because you’re another lapsed Catholic mad at the church?” Slattery’s Bradlee asks Ruffalo’s Rezendes at one point. “No,” he replies, “it’s a good story.”
Speaking to the character moments in the film, Ruffalo is the only one who ever comes close to getting what is traditionally referred to as a “grand-standing” moment. Even still, it is a rather subdued moment that is by all means necessary to let the impact of what this team is uncovering really hit you. Ruffalo is spectacular in this role, getting what are no doubt the ticks and details of Rezendes’ personality down while displaying a persona equal to that of a seasoned reporter. McAdams is also rather superb as Pfeiffer as she is the link that allows The Globe to convey a policy of sympathy, honesty and openness with the victims that is necessary to get the story it’s necessary sources. While Pfeiffer takes care of this side of things Rezendes is assigned the task of getting inside Mitchell Garabedian’s (Stanley Tucci) head. Garabedian is a lawyer who consistently takes on these church victims cases, while repeatedly being shut down by the likes of attorney’s like Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) who continue to make out of court settlements for the church (though MacLeish would eventually come to sue the archdiocese for the release of thousands of pages of secret files on abusive priests, breaking the story wide open). As Garabedian, Tucci steals nearly every scene he appears in. Garabedian is our voice of the governing body that presides over how the church was able to do things such as remove legal documents from the courthouse. With his assistance and Tucci’s inescapable charisma McCarthy and Singer are able to break down the complexities of the case and the legal system and deliver a film that makes an outcome we’re all familiar with all the more impactful.
This may be the single greatest achievement of the film from a storytelling point. That the script is able to take a story so familiar, so hotly debated, one that has been in the news for well over a decade now and make it feel as fresh and as revelatory as it does is beyond impressive. Considering this is one of those stories where it is easy to see the big picture and not think about the small details, the individual incidents and the dynamics of what each allegation includes though, there is really no surprise that Spotlight turns out to be as fascinating and as sharp as it is. Coupled with it’s breathless script are the fine performances all-around. Despite many of the actors having little more to do than read lines of information upon information they do it with a striking ease that always carries more weight than whatever the actual words being spoken might be. Despite the film covering uncomfortable territory and hitting on several hot-button issues, Spotlight is a movie I could watch again and again simply due to the endlessly engaging way it presents it’s facts, the understated aspects that come along with them and the cunning way in which it all comes together. Spotlight is the best film I’ve seen this year.