Friday Film Focus: Spotlight

Power with the absence of accountability is a dangerous thing.

On January 6, 2002 the city of Boston woke up to this front page headline of the Boston Globe: “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.” The story uncovered the horrifying decades of sexual child abuse in the Catholic Church, and the cover-ups that followed. Spotlight — directed by Tom McCarthy — is the story of that investigation.

The film is a gripping detective story combined with newsroom drama. The ‘Spotlight’ team tries to fight evil without the use of sensationalism. The film itself isn’t beautiful to look at, but boy is it enticing. We spend much of the film with the Spotlight staff — which includes Editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters: Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Aarcy James). John Slattery also plays deputy editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. All of the reporters in Spotlight had some personal connection to the Catholic Church, and understood the momentous impact the story would have.

53-percent of the Globe’s base identified as being Catholic. It’s incredibly scary to challenge a deeply respected institution like the church –especially for those who grew up in it. Continuing his career resurgence that arguably began with Birdman, Keaton is the star throughout this film. He projects his subtle torment in knowing his team could have tackled the story years before, but chose subconsciously to let it go. It’s acting at its finest. When new editor Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) comes into town, he is perceived as an outsider. He didn’t grow up in Boston, and was raised Jewish faith. In the initial meeting, Baron brings up a recent article written by a Globe columnist about the Boston Archdiocese’s potential mishandling of child abuse cases in various parishes around the city. He doesn’t understand why more effort wasn’t put into the investigation. He then suggests this to be Spotlight’s next big story. Robby hesitates, as he himself is a part of Boston’s Roman Catholic establishment. Baron gently insists, rightfully suspecting a conspiracy. Schreiber’s performance is very underplayed throughout the entirety of the film — so much so that the audience might miss its overall effectiveness.

Baron wants them to not focus on individual stories or specific priests. Rather, he wants the staff to take down the whole system. Pfeiffer starts with interviewing survivors of the victims’ rights group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). She spends months questioning  people. At times, whole families felt comfortable enough in divulging their darkest secrets. Pfeiffer is able to establish emotional connections with many of the victims, and widens the search to 13 priests. The scenes are often hard to watch, but the impact is necessary to understanding the true trauma that many of these victims still deal with on a daily basis. McAdams is phenomenal in this role. She is subtle in her reactions, and is able to show sympathy and compassion without being too presumptuous or demanding. Rezendes is a fiery, obsessive journalist who seems to put his life on hold for a story. He hounds a zealous attorney (Stanley Tucci) for access to his clients — who happen to be past victims of sexual abuse.

The scenes between Ruffalo and Tucci are beyond riveting. Carroll is resilient in his research — digging through long hidden records of past abuse in the Globe’s archives. Through numerous church directories, he creates a spreadsheet of suspected priests. At the end, it totals a staggering count of 90. Legal and social systems are all found complicit. This includes Cardinal Bernard Francis Law and plaintiff’s lawyer Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup). As the number of predators and victims increase, it becomes clear that Law and many others knew about the abuse…and simply did nothing.

Spotlight doesn’t coast on the performances of the actors, nor is it a lecture on the evils of the Catholic Church. It instead beautifully captures the professional ethos of incredible journalism. Only the combined efforts of a well-staffed journalistic team — with enough will to push past any social or political pressures — could uncover such a well-orchestrated secret. The film is about the process of reporting, and the grittiness behind the story. In 2003, the members of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team won a Pulitzer Prize for their work reporting on the systematic cover-up of child abuse in the Catholic Church. The film also went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016. The story is about an actual group of human beings whose hard work and dedication to truth brought to life one of the biggest scandals in American history. Even without the car chases and fireworks, it’s an immensely gratifying film to watch.

Image Source: The Independent