“If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”
As an embittered attorney who represented dozens of Catholic Church rape and sex-abuse victims over the years, Stanley Tucci lays bare the core of Spotlight, a passionate journalism drama based on the true story of the Boston Globe team that uncovered the vast web of lies, cover-ups, bully-pulpit negotiations, and geographic sleight-of-hand that gave dozens of hypocritical monsters the power and implicit permission to use hundreds of their most vulnerable followers as their playthings for decades, with virtually no accountability or consequences.
Innocents and their parents, obedient parishioners all, looked up to them and shouted, “Won’t someone think of the children?” These collared but uncontrolled sinners looked down and whispered “No.”
Short version for the unfamiliar: The movie’s name sounds bland, but it’s purposeful for more than mere symbolism. The renowned “Spotlight” was the Globe‘s crack team of investigative reporters whose specialty was taking a dogged, in-depth, long-term approach to matters that needed coverage the most. Fact-finding pursuit, intensive research, hard interviews, data collation, and exposure of darkness to the light were kind of their things.
As the film tells it, in 2001 new editor Marty Baron (a pensive Liev Schreiber), an out-of-towner as yet uninformed on The Way Things Work in Boston, wondered aloud why the Globe never followed up on its somewhat superficial coverage of a particular cardinal’s indiscretions the previous decade. The Spotlight team — played nobly here by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Broadway star Brian d’Arcy James — took up the assignment and made benign inquiries to satisfy the new boss.
With each new interview and perusal of documents, they began noticing similar allegations among a handful of other priestly perpetrators in other cities and states. Overlooked evidence was revealed, buried testimonies were unearthed, and fearful victims stepped forward at last despite the scars. Connections and patterns emerged, pointing to a network of collective denial and a system of self-preservation enabled and perpetuated by the offenders’ superiors, possibly at high levels beyond the Church alone and extending into the very city of Boston itself. Numerous scenes suggest the kind of shady collaborations usually run by men with the title of “Don”, not the title of “Father”.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Mad Men‘s John Slattery also represents for Team Globe. For those of you counting comics connections, that brings the movie’s standing army up to Batman, the Hulk, Sabretooth, and Old Howard Stark.
In addition to Tucci as the harried Mitchell Garabedian (who in real life remains very much active and still fighting for victims to this day), Billy Crudup has a few scenes as fellow attorney Eric MacLeish, who would later join in the courtroom fights against the Archdiocese, but who during the film’s timeline had his own stake in the controversies. Previous media reports had the real MacLeish disputing his portrayal before he’d even seen Spotlight, then in a post-viewing Globe interview revised his stance somewhat: “The movie is great. The reporters are even better. My character is inaccurately portrayed but the film is too important and too good to let this be a distraction.”
Other important figures include The Wire‘s Neal Huff as former victim Phil Saviano, who formed his own support organization and who delivers a disturbing, step-by-step explanation of how the priests chose and cultivated their prey. Veteran actors Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, and Len Cariou lead the list of Guys You’ve Seen in Dozens of Other Things. Offscreen but vital, an uncredited Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is an authoritative phone resource with enough figures and analyses at his disposal to confidently deem sexually abusive priests “a recognizable psychological phenomenon”, which from a spiritual standpoint is one of the most disturbing lines in the movie.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? It’s important to note Spotlight‘s narrative fuel isn’t “CHURCH SUCKS”. As a member of a nondenominational Christian church myself, I’m no more interested in dumping on the concept of Catholicism here than the movie is. One scene does confirm their various affiliations, or lack thereof, and a later scene shows the adverse effects of the scandal-to-be on one reporter’s church attendance. The decision is mentioned without vituperation or vehemence. With so many so-called men of God acting as the worst role models ever, it’s hard to blame anyone needing distance from their lairs.
They key target is monolithic systems that flaunt too much power in the service of so much sin. Boston’s Catholic hierarchy bears the brunt of the flagellation, as does the local legal community to a profitable extent, but a smaller critical question plays out subtly in the background: if more than one priest had been caught in these heinous acts through the years, when the one egregious case ripped the lid off that can of worms, why didn’t the Globe double-down and go deeper in the first place? Journalists may be the hero of the story, but not every journalist can claim a spotless conscience.
Regardless, in a world where desperate clickbait and arbitrary listicles devalue the label of “news”, when legwork takes too much effort, when ethics are optional and situational in the minds of the weak, and when it’s easier to let the other guys go first and then copy/paste their results, it’s hard to remember what real reporters once looked like in their element. Some are still around today, but they’re outnumbered by lesser wannabes and shouted down by an increasingly entitled public that thinks the preservation of its opinions is more important than the discovery of the hardest truths. For that alone, Spotlight is a refreshingly intellectual engagement in its ride-along observance of those who sought to heighten our awareness of man’s inhumanity to kids.
Nitpicking? Virtually nothing, though I was led to believe on our 2013 road trip that the town of Quincy pronounced it “Quinzy”, rather than “Quinssy” as one person does here. Also, when the characters kept talking about confronting “Cardinal Law” in multiple contexts, I honestly thought they were referring to a metaphorical backlash against church doctrine itself. Halfway into the movie I realized they were referring to Cardinal Bernard Law, the reigning archbishop at the time. Maybe I missed an intro somewhere, but for a while I thought their crusade sounded a bit more heavy-handed than it actually was. So I withdrew that objection.
So what’s to like? Writer/director Tom McCarthy previously played a journalist himself in season five of The Wire. As morally empty Baltimore Sun writer Scott Templeton, he wrote more fiction than facts, unwittingly collaborated with another fraud, refused to confess or to rat the other guy out, and ended the series accepting a prestigious award entirely for the outstanding achievement of crafting lying lies that sold papers. With Spotlight McCarthy takes the same attention to character details that made his first film The Station Agent such a pleasure to me and expands his scope to honor an entire team whose deeds were the exact opposite of Templeton’s.
Everyone has their moments to stand tall — Keaton as the determined old pro in the trenches; Ruffalo more excitable than I’ve ever seen him before as the go-getter with the best For Your Oscar Consideration showy speech; McAdams asking hard questions without having to suffer the cliched indignity of guys sneering at her for reporting while female; Brian d’Arcy James as the living embodiment of stressed-out journalists throughout cinema history; and both Slattery and the understated Schreiber as the guys in charge who don’t necessarily give Our Heroes everything they want when they want it, but who can tell when they’re on to something and need them in their corner.
It’s a pleasure to watch their teamwork as their consciences unanimously tell them what must be done, even as it’s abhorrent to consider the monstrosity of what they’re dealing with, and the hypocritical nature of the “godly” influence being wielded against them. Spotlight is an important, suspenseful celebration of a historical moment when truth won out over corruption, a sobering acknowledgement of how much more should have been done, and a hopeful reminder of how much still needs to be done today.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Spotlight end credits, though the beginning of said credits reports on Cardinal Law’s Pyrrhic fate after the story broke, and provides a list of other cities where Catholic sex-abuse scandals have been dragged out of the shadows. Hundreds of cities worldwide, as it so happens.
There’s also an interesting message buried nearer the end: “If you have been affected by these issues or want to support investigative journalists and their work, go to [official website link]” The front page is a standard promo site with the requisite trailer, gallery, and other multimedia extras. Buried deep within those is a link to the original Globe article published January 6, 2002, that took a precision jackhammer to the very foundations of Boston and the Church.
Following the “Take Action” link in the lower-right corner of the home page will take visitors to a wealth of additional materials including:
* Similar harrowing stories from eighteen other cities, a fraction of a fraction of those listed at the beginning of the end credits
* Links to two relevant charities and a petition
* A thorough, historical timeline of events with numerous links to supporting sources, cataloging the offenses leading up to the movie, the course of the Spotlight investigation, and the subsequent aftershocks beyond the movie’s endpoint
* Educational resources, charitable organizations, and hotlines that sexual abuse victims/survivors can call for help today. The conspiracy may have been exposed, but it does not mean scientists discovered the cure for clergy abuse and all of God’s people lived happily ever after.
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UPDATED 2/23/2016: Thanks to the guys at Screen Junkies and today’s latest Honest Trailer, here’s that end-credits list of cities besides Boston — in America and worldwide — where Catholic sex-abuse scandals have been reported. Not a comforting sight.