SPOTLIGHT IS THE spellbindingly good story of the Boston Globe’s exposé of the nasty underbelly of priestly pedophilia in Boston’s Catholic Church in the 80’s and 90’s. What started off as an investigation into a Father Goeghan and a couple of other “rotten eggs” turned out to be the uncovering of the church’s systemic abuse of young kids (boys and girls…the priests took whoever was at hand) and its highly refined program of simply switching around ‘outed’ priests, with cover-ups that went right up to the top (in this case, the ironically named Cardinal Law).
Director Tom McCarthy (of The Station Agent fame and who also co-wrote the movie along with movies such as Up), working with an ensemble of superb actors (lead by the wonderfully resurgent Michael Keaton as Robbie Robinson, the leader of the Spotlight investigative group, along with an impassioned Mark Ruffalo, Rachael McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and others), builds his horror story block by block.
There’s a palpable anger that energizes the whole enterprise. This is not the faux sanctimoniousness of The Big Short or Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, this is a movie that’s passionately and compellingly livid about the abuse of minors, hiding for so long in plain sight.
Unlike the bloated, rambling The Hateful Eight, here, not a scene is wasted. It begins with an office farewell party: the outgoing editor is about to be replaced. This is a critical factor. This very Bostonian newspaper is being replaced by an outsider. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, always superb, as the rock solid, soft spoken intellectual leader) is not Catholic (he’s Jewish) and far removed from the incestuous chumminess of the Boston power players. It gives him the perspective and independence to pursue an investigation that his paper has touched on before and for years, simply swept under a carpet of omerta.
In Boston, you don’t mess with God or the Catholic Church (to the abused children, this was one and the same thing).
We follow the story as the Spotlight team – a small group of individuals whose passionate pursuit of the story tears away at their private lives – assembles the evidence. It’s a foot-slogging journey: from door to door, they initially meet some of the victims, and the lawyers involved (the shape shifting Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian is particularly good as the shabby, disillusioned, knowledgeable champion of the abused and Eric MacLeish – Billy Crudup, the voice of the American Mastercard ads – the sleazy church consigliere).
As the evidence (mysteriously removed from public records) mounts and as they begin to realize the extent of the ecclesiastic stain, they begin to feel the dark hand of threat: high society influencers in dark bars (Paul Guilfoyle as a pitch perfect old Irish Catholic’fixer’) who try to persuade them that exposing pedophilia really isn’t in anyone’s best interest (after all, look how much good the Catholic Church has done)
The case McCarthy meticulously builds (where every scene advances not only the story but our investment in the characters’ lives) simultaneously exposes the two interrelated strands of the problem: there’s a predatory priesthood (telephone conversations with an off camera psychologist explains the psycho-sexual corrosiveness of celibacy where over 50% of priests are in adult sexual relationships); and there’s a complicit social order that, in awe of Papal power and connections, insulate them from exposure. (As one character says, if it takes a village to raise a child, in this case, it also takes a village to rape one)
This is part detective story, part courtroom drama, part heart-stopping thriller.
The writing (by McCarthy and Josh Singer of The Fifth Estate) is superb: the conversations crackle as these hard-nosed, cynical journalists realize the extent of what they’re discovering…the size of the scoop.
It’s more than a condemnation of the Catholic Church (Cardinal Law – Lou Cariou – who spearheaded the cover-ups was forced to resign his post… and was then reallocated to the most prestigious cathedral in Rome) or for that matter of any organization where the dividing line between the authorities and the organizations they’re supposed to be monitoring have blurred (think banking). It’s also a celebration of our Fourth Estate (all too rapidly disappearing under the quagmire of the Murdoch’s and Rothermere’s of the world) in the grand tradition of Network News, All the President’s Men and Good Night, and Good Luck.
For me: movie of the year
SPOTLIGHT. DIR: Tom McCarthy. WITH: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup. SCREENPLAY: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. CINEMATOGRAPHER: Masanobu Takayanagi