Mark Reviews Movies



4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup

MPAA Rating: R (for some language including sexual references)

Running Time: 2:08

Release Date: 11/16/15 (limited); 11/13/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 12, 2015

Spotlight, a film of vital and intimate urgency, is about the fallibility of systems that cannot live up to their lofty ideals. The common trait of these systems is that their aims are pure but that they are run by human beings, who are far from pure. That's the rub.

The goal for each one is Truth, as it is defined within the context of each system's ambition. Religion, specifically the Catholic Church here, should be a force for good in the world—as concerned about the corporal well-being of its followers as it is with the welfare of their souls. The justice system should treat each alleged crime with the same standards, and that includes actually bringing up charges on people in power or of a certain influence within a given community. Journalism, which is the film's central focus, should seek out and bring to light the injustices perpetrated or aided by the systems within the public trust. That includes itself.

When one of these or other systems fail, we expect at least one other will compensate. For a long time, such was not the case here.

Co-writer/director Tom McCarthy's film finds that each of these systems had failed in significant ways when it came to the issue of sex abuse within the Catholic Church (The film's coda, which lists locations in the United States where similar crimes were uncovered, becomes even more infuriating when it moves on to the rest of the world). Each institution has its role in the reasons this scandal remained relatively silent for decades, whether because of an outright cover-up or favorable treatment or a simple case of disinterest. All of these reasons are cases of human fallibility.

This dramatized account of the uncovering of the widespread sexual abuse of minors committed by Catholic priests in Boston and greater Massachusetts follows a group of reporters from the Boston Globe—specifically members of the "Spotlight" team, the newspaper's investigative journalism branch. This is a film that not only understands the journalistic process but also respects it enough to delve into the particulars.

The screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer neither sugarcoats nor glamorizes the profession. This is a human institution, made up of flawed but principled people, and the work is arduous and slow (That's before the process of writing and editing a story even begins). There's no smoking gun. It's more like assembling particles of smoke and the pieces of a gun.

This is a film in which the politics of the newsroom, the personal views of the reporters, and editorial decisions are as important as research and interviews. Big personalities, as they will, clash. Most of these people take the investigation personally. Some can overcome that bias and take a pragmatic approach to the inquiry. Understandably, others have greater difficulty overcoming a sense of betrayal or a desire for what seems like righteous vengeance against crime and corruption. All of them are shocked that this hasn't come to light earlier, although one of them is worried that it could have and that he is responsible for why it didn't.

The film opens with a haunting prologue set in 1976. A priest has been brought into a Boston police station upon an accusation of molesting a young boy. After the bishop of the diocese talks with the boy and his parents, the priest is whisked away from the station under cover of darkness. He will be transferred, and that will be the end of it.

In 2001, another priest is facing criminal charges for similar activity. The paper's new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) believes it and other recent cases that allegedly have been mishandled by the archdiocese are worth a more thorough investigation. Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the editor for "Spotlight," and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), an assistant editor, aren't sure, but the boss is the boss.

We meet the rest of the team. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a lapsed Catholic, can't wait to take it to the Church. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) still goes to church every Sunday with her devout grandmother. Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) has children of his own, and one revelation, which uncovers an apparent child molester a short walk from his house, has him questioning the ethics of the waiting for the story to break before telling his neighbors.

All around, the performances here are strong, and a lot of that has to do with McCarthy and Singer's dedication to making these characters more than mere agents in an investigation. We have a sense of why they're devoted to this work beyond principles and how their work affects them. For example, Mike loses his family on account of long hours, while Sacha begins to question her faith.

The Church is a towering, imposing institution throughout the city. Robby attended a Catholic high school that is situated directly across the street from the offices of the Globe. The school calls on its alum to try to sway his thinking. Similarly, an earlier scene has Marty meeting with Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the head of the archdiocese, in a rite of passage of sorts that any person of authority must undergo, as if the archbishop's approval is key to acceptance within the community. The cardinal's gift, a copy of the catechism, is at once a tacit reminder of the church's influence and a possible insult to Marty, who is Jewish.

Continuing that thread of influence, McCarthy often composes shots with some element of a church building somewhere in frame. It's never more disquieting than in scenes involving the survivors of abuse. One man's apartment building is almost perfectly framed by the façade of a church, and as another survivor discusses his experience, he and Sacha come across a playground on the grounds of a church.

The scenes featuring the survivors are where the film transcends its procedural narrative. The team approaches Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a founder of a support organization for other survivors and someone who had previously sent information to the paper, and Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, who stands out as particularly great here, even among this cast), an attorney representing victims in a class-action lawsuit against the archdiocese. Both men are justifiably hesitant in believing the reporters will do anything of value.

Eventually, members of the team speak with survivors, who offer horrifying stories of abuse in excruciating detail. McCarthy, the actors, and the characters treat these scenes with an abundance of compassion. A phone interview with a psychologist points to a pathological pattern among a certain percentage of priests, and digging through a not-so-secret code within the archdiocese's parish directories points to a pattern of cover-ups, which lines up almost perfectly with the psychologist's hypothesis.

The tone in regards to this particular scandal may have changed in the period between the time depicted in this film and now, but that does not diminish the relevancy of the story Spotlight tells. Institutions fail to live up to their ideals and will continue to do so. Here is a prime example of the unmitigated good that can happen when one rises to the occasion.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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