Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This is the Church, this is the Steeple

Film: Spotlight
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I met my wife working on a college newspaper. I worked as an occasional reporter and regular music critic; she was one of the editors. Neither of us are really in journalism anymore—this blog is about as close as I come to anything like journalism and this really isn’t anything like journalism. There was a golden age of journalism and we’re not in it anymore. Great journalists are important, though. They can change the world by revealing painful and ugly but important truths. Spotlight is a reminder of this.

Spotlight has only one major problem to overcome. Like many stories about important historical events, the ending here is not in question. Anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to the world knows how this comes out. It takes good writing, careful direction, and compelling performances to keep the audience interested. It’s a good thing, then, that Spotlight qualifies on all fronts.

This is the story of how the issue of pedophilia amongst priests in the Catholic Church was broken by a team of reporters from the Boston Globe. It starts with the introduction of Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) as the new editor of the paper. There’s an immediate tension here, since Boston (as we’re told many times in the film) is really a small town and Baron is an outsider from Florida. He’s also Jewish in a town that is predominantly Catholic. Working for Baron is the Spotlight team, a small team of reporters headed by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton who I think now qualifies as having a renaissance). Also on the team are Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, nominated in a supporting role), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams, also with a supporting nomination), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Overseeing the team at least in theory is Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), son of Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal.

The story begins with a case concerning a priest accused of molesting children. Slowly, other connections to the story come to light. There is a Boston-area victims group and allegations about other priests who were shuffled from parish to parish when new allegations came to light. Lawyers for the church make vague claims about cases that were decided out of court. One, Eric MacLeish (Billy Cruddup) says he won’t talk to the reporters, but also claims that he sent them important documents years earlier implicating 20 area priests. Another lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), appears erratic, but also seems to be the only person willing to truly represent victims and take the cases to trial.

As the team digs deeper, more details and more terrible details come to light, showing that the problem is not isolated to a couple of priests. Marty Baron tells the team that he won’t run the story until they can implicate the entire system and more specifically can shed light on the behavior of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), the Bishop of the archdiocese. While some of the focus remains on the victims, the intent of the investigation shifts to determining if Law new about the abuse and did nothing to prevent it or bring it to light.

With this as the main focus of the film, it’s almost impossible for the story not to be a compelling one. Spotlight really has no issues in that regard. It becomes the job of the director and the cast to present the story in a way that keeps it compelling and moving forward. That’s not particularly easy. As mentioned above, the outcome of the case is never really in question for anyone who pays even scant attention to the news. When hurdles come up, like public court documents being removed from cases, it’s almost a guarantee that this is going to be overcome in one way or another.

Of the four main players on the Spotlight team, Matt Carroll seems to get the shortest shrift, although there’s a minor subplot involving his discovery of a treatment center for pedophile priests in his neighborhood. Much more of the focus falls on Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer. It’s Rezendes who does a great deal of the investigative work on the Church while Pfeiffer concentrates in large part on the victims. Both Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams are great here. Their portrayals focus on the professional with glimpses into the personal.

In many ways, though, this film belongs to Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber. Keaton is passionate and driven, personally motivated to get to the bottom of the story but also to do it the right way. Schreiber’s portrayal of Marty Baron is oddly low key but none the less compelling for it. It’s deceptively dispassionate; underneath his exterior there lurks not merely a man who cares deeply about the story and the paper, but about doing the right thing and getting it done well.

A great deal of the success of Spotlight falls squarely on the shoulders of writer/director Tom McCarthy. There’s always a danger of boring the audience with a known outcome and that never happens here. McCarthy’s story focuses on the process and the cover up. While we might know where this is going, the real tale is in the convoluted path the story takes. His direction keeps the film moving. There are no action sequences, and only a couple instances of raised voices, but the passion is here throughout. There are people on all sides who care deeply about what happens, who know that something is terrible and wrong, and who don’t know what they should do about it.

Spotlight is a hell of a movie. It would be an important film just for the story if nothing else. That it’s well made and interesting only makes it that much better. I almost want to watch it again right now.

Why to watch Spotlight: A reminder that journalism should be important and is when it’s done well.
Why not to watch: I imagine if you are Catholic that this might create a crisis of faith.


  1. Completely agree with your review. I think part of what makes it compelling is that its takes us back to the time when we didn't know the extent of the horror, and reminds us just how shocking these crimes are. We have all probably become in some way used to hearing them.

    1. Sadly, I think you're right. There's untold suffering in these cases and the violations are (I would argue) far more worse because of the almost blind trust that was betrayed by those responsible. We need to be reminded sometimes of just how monstrous it really was and still is, and as with the case of Cardinal Law, done with the complicity of the Church.

  2. I think this is a great film. I've seen some people call it boring, but I felt the best thing it did about covering this subject matter was to NOT make it sensationalistic. I've watched it twice and felt it held up just as well the second time around.

    One of my favorite moments is when they're in the basement by the yearly registries and all of a sudden a lightbulb goes on and they realize they've got a huge break in the story and it's sitting right in front of them on these dusty old shelves.

    1. Yes, exactly. I also like how the blame for having missed the story for years is shared around. There's not so much finger pointing as there is the realization that everyone missed it and let it happen.

      I can't see boring in this at all.

  3. I was delighted with this, it comes close to being almost as compelling in presenting a story with a known outcome as All the President's Men and that's an extremely high bar to meet.

    It's one of the few films of recent years that I would watch again willingly.

    1. Yeah, I thought it was great. I'd happily watch it again as well. Smart, well made, important story...it hits on all cylinders.

  4. I found it disheartening when some critics just focused on McCarthy's style and used that to criticize the movie. It made me hesitate to see it, which was dumb. I think he presented the story in just the right fashion. I finally watched it last month and really enjoyed it. I grew up Catholic and have a journalism degree, so a lot of this rung true in a variety of ways.

    1. I didn't have a problem with McCarthy's style here. I thought he treated it with a great deal of respect.

      I'm not a Catholic and never have been one, but I was something like a journalist for some time, so it certainly resonated with me on that level.