SPOTLIGHT, drama, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 4 chiles
It’s not a religion that comes under the glare of
Spotlight, but an institution. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has seen its share of corruption, debauchery, and horror, from the Crusades to the Borgias to the Inquisition and beyond. Like many another worldly power, it has been a force sometimes for good and sometimes for its opposite.
In Tom McCarthy’s (The Station Agent) splendid, crackling ode to journalism, the “Spotlight” investigative team at The Boston Globe tackles pedophilia and its cover-up within the Church. The series, which won the team and the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, begins on a cautious note. A new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has arrived from The Miami Herald to take the reins of the Globe, and one of his early orders of business is to take note of a small item in the files about a pedophile priest, an article that had been buried on an inside page. He suggests this might bear further attention.
The team, headed by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and foot-soldiered by reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), is initially dubious. They’re all lapsed Catholics, but nobody wants to take on the church. “Fifty-three percent of our subscriber base is Catholic,” one points out. This sort of thing has been around, everybody knows about it, a few bad apples — what are you gonna do? Baron (in an exquisitely low-key performance by Schreiber) raises an expressive eyebrow. And the chase is on.
The culture of the city plays a major role in this unfolding drama; Boston is seen here as a company town. The company is the Catholic Church, and its resident CEO, Cardinal Law (played with unctuously friendly authority by Len Cariou), is its well-connected, unchallenged head of state. “The city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” he suggests to Baron with a smile. Baron raises an expressive eyebrow.
Not too much is made of the fact that Baron is an outsider, and a Jew, and unmarried, and not even a baseball fan in a town where the Red Sox rank a close second to the church as a religion. But it’s pointedly there. It takes an outsider to shift the perspective. He initiates a lawsuit to open sealed court documents, many of which turn out to have mysteriously disappeared. The team gets to work. What the reporters uncover stuns them.
The story metastasizes. One pedophile priest turns into 13 with a little digging. Probing further, the number mounts into the triple figures for the perpetrators, and into the thousands of victims, with individual molestations too numerous to calculate. And the coverup is the work of a smooth, well-disciplined machine, reminiscent of the now-familiar practices of Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Politics. New Mexico is familiar with the church’s strategy of relocating pedophile priests to perceived backwaters, where the abuse continued. The responsibility goes right to the top of the institution (the disgraced Cardinal Law fled to a post at the Vatican).
McCarthy, who co-wrote the excellent script with former The West Wing writer Josh Singer, is careful not to glamorize his reporters. They’re played as hardworking stiffs by a superb cast. Ruffalo incorporates a sideways, shuffling gait that can explode into a pellmell gallop. James plays a statistics man, who finds the story close to home when he discovers that an accused priest lives in his neighborhood. McAdams blends empathy with determination, and some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments belong to her, as she coaxes information from a sweet, damaged gay man (Michael Cyril Creighton), who describes being molested as a child. “Did you talk to anyone?” she asks. “Who am I going to talk to?” he answers sadly. “A priest?”
From top to bottom, and there’s really no bottom, the cast shines. Stanley Tucci plays a dry-as-dust lawyer who has been representing victims and hammering at the barricaded doors of this scandal for years. And Keaton manages to combine journalistic professionalism, honesty, and equivocacy into the very human package of Robby, the editor who hobnobs with the city’s political and ecclesiastical establishment.
McCarthy keeps nibbling at the question of how this story could have remained buried for so long. Part of it has to do with the power of the church, and the shame of the victims. And some of it has to do with the cozy relationships among the city’s power institutions. At the end of the film — and you won’t be tempted to leave early — a crawl of names and places shows the truly staggering extent and reach of this scandal.
This movie will evoke a lot of comparison to the 1976 investigative classic All the President’s Men (there’s even a direct pedigree link, with Mad Men’s John Slattery portraying Ben Bradlee Jr., a supervising editor on the team). There’s a lot of the same shoe-leather approach, conducted here in an even lower key, which in a perverse way gives it even more drama. The underlying drama is a murder tale, shining a spotlight on the slow death of the American newspaper, whose traditions of independence and diligence have made possible the exposure of the kinds of horrors spotlighted here.
Paper chasers: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton, and John Slattery