|The team comes together in writer-director Tom McCarthy's masterful Spotlight.|
Spotlight is an American masterpiece. As a journalist, the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team uncovering the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal fills me with pride. As a human, however, it fills me with shame and disgust. This is among the darkest chapters in our shared cultural history, and it is ongoing. Every day in every part of the world, new victims come forward, and we are confronted with the painful reality of a system and a society that has allowed this to continue.
The concerted effort to protect pedophile priests in the Catholic Church has been described as a conspiracy of silence, but few can agree on the members of the conspiracy. The church wants the public to believe this is the work of “a few bad apples,” a phrase repeated throughout the film. The evidence suggests the entire church is corrupt all the way to the top. Common sense, however, tells us systems take their power from people – in this case, the parishioners.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one,” says Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the lawyer for the victims. Like that, we are all implicated. Even the venerable Globe is not without blood on its hands as we learn the paper had the all the pieces needed to break the story years before the Spotlight team but refused to put them together. No one wants to acknowledge the abuse because to do so is to recognize a fundamental flaw in ourselves. Knowing everything, we still did nothing.
It is a common trick in movies like this to use one or two people to represent large numbers of victims – the old adage, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic,” comes to mind. Writer-director Tom McCarthy thankfully avoids this trap, and we watch the team interview survivor after survivor after survivor, establishing both the pattern and scope of the abuse. They are not just numbers. They are real people with families and friends and lives. They feel regret and shame and anger, and we in the audience feel anger for them as we come to know each and every one of them personally.
In an early sequence, expertly assembled by editor Tom McArdle, the film cuts back and forth between interviews with two victims. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) speaks with a middle-aged gay man about his abuse at the hands of a priest who earned his trust little by little before exploiting it. At the same time, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) hears the story of a younger, married working-class man and the priest who abused him in the wake of his father’s death.
These two men could not be more different, but their stories are distressingly similar, to the point where one wonders if a priest’s copy of the catechism comes with a handbook for abuse. We meet more survivors, whose experiences differ in the details but the cumulative effect of which leads us to only one conclusion. The church’s abuse robbed these people of their innocence, their trust, and their faith in god, and the hypocrisy at the center of it all is a legal and moral wrong that went willfully unchecked for too long.
If this all sounds like a tragically bleak tale, it is, but under the masterful direction of McCarthy, working from a script he co-wrote with Josh Singer, it never feels like a slog. Quite the contrary. Spotlight is a riveting legal thriller and excellent journalistic drama on par with the classic All the President’s Men. The film plays off the audience’s own sense of right and wrong, and though we know the abuse will be brought to light, we sit glued to our seats, breathlessly anticipating the moment when the Globe fires the first shot to bring down this system.
|Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.|
So few films understand the mechanics of journalism, and even fewer seem to try. Spotlight, for which McCarthy collaborated closely with the staff of the Globe, gets it. This film knows what it is like to pore over the stacks in search of one piece of information. This film knows what it is like to go door to door with a pad and pencil in your hands, seeking answers from people who do not want to talk to you. This film also knows an editor will get annoyed if you use “golf” as a verb. The Globe in this movie has the feel of a real newsroom, and it is refreshing to see that feeling accurately depicted on screen.
Moreover, the cast, which also worked closely with those being portrayed, feels like a news team. In these people, I recognize the personalities and professionals I have worked with throughout my career. Ruffalo nails the style of a hard-nosed reporter who puts the story above all else. Michael Keaton is perfect as Spotlight Editor Robby Robinson, who must at all times keep the bigger picture in focus. John Slattery is great as Globe Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., who knows how important it is to check every fact and cover every base. McAdams, Tucci, Liev Schrieber, and Brian D’Arcy James are all excellent, as well. This cast is perhaps the best evidence yet for the need of an ensemble award at the Oscars.
They are helped by a tremendous screenplay that seems to understand how each of these characters would speak. McCarthy and Singer shift seamlessly from the heightened, condescending manner of the clergy to the workingman vernacular of many of the victims, hitting every other level in between. Compare that to something like an Aaron Sorkin script, in which every character sounds as witty and didactic as Sorkin, and you understand how rare it is to see real people interact how they might in life.
The film’s facility with language and understanding of human connection should be no surprise, though, coming as it does from McCarthy, whose filmography is full of compassionate, lonely people trying to find their way in life. McCarthy is the same writer-director who brought us the excellent trio of independent films The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. Even his most recent effort, the critically derided The Cobbler, displays the same care for building character and motivation McCarthy has always shown.
McCarthy is perhaps best recognized as an actor in films such as Meet the Parents, Syriana, and Good Night and Good Luck or television shows such as The Wire and Boston Public. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing Pixar’s magnificent Up. His directorial efforts, however, have rarely garnered much attention, despite being generally well liked. Spotlight could change all that. McCarthy has deserved larger recognition for his work behind the camera for years, and this should be movie that brings it to him.
While Spotlight is a quintessentially American film, its story is global as we are reminded at the end by a series of title cards listing the cities all over the world in which major sex abuse scandals have been uncovered. One is too many. That the final list names too many cities to count is disgraceful. Against this international backdrop, the Globe’s victory in highlighting abuse in Boston parishes may seem small, but its larger triumph is to force us to see what we would rather not. Knowing what we know now, we can never look away again, and it is incumbent upon us to pick up a torch, shine a light, and guide the way to providence.
See it? Yes.