The issue of child sexual abuse is horrifically difficult to broach in any medium. The worldwide sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic church goes beyond what most people could imagine as it was a secret held and systematically covered up by members of the church and community for decades. The scope and breadth, now widely known, could not be comprehnded by anyone outside of the active Catholic community. In 2002 a Boston lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian brought a child molestation suit against a former Catholic priest named John J. Geoghan and the Archdiocese of Boston. Garabedian, in fact, was bringing countless suits against clergy in a city which was a deeply devout stronghold of the Catholic faith. Garabedian, an outsider, an Armenian, became ground zero for the Catholic sex scandal when a woman walked into Garabedian’s office in 1994 and asked him, ”will you listen to my three children? They have a story to tell.” The lawsuit against Geoghan served as the impetus for an investigation by a team of reporters at The Boston Globe under the direction of its new editor Marty Baron. The team, named Spotlight, brought to light the widespread abuse as well as the complicity of the church itself, in a series which earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
Films about journalists have a unique thrill to them. Perhaps because journalists appear to us to be more accessibly ‘real’ people, not spies, snipers, or noir-ish detectives, we more readily identify with them. The roller coaster ride of journalistic drive colliding with editorial aims and constriction is ever present, and exceptionally well played in SPOTLIGHT. How far is too far? How hard is too hard to push? The moments of startling discovery, when the pieces of a story begin to look like an actual picture, are breathtaking. Like some of the best films of this genre, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE INSIDER, and FROST NIXON to name a few, SPOTLIGHT is perfectly paced and devastating in its scope. It is a film which thrills and moves us not only because of the subject matter itself but because of those who brought it to us, who dared to find out and expose. Those who, for lack of a better terms, did the right thing despite the personal and professional risks.
The team of Boston Globe reporters who brought to light the extent of the abuse, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, Matt Carroll, and Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, are in many ways, just like the rest of us, until they realize with increasing horror, what they have begun to uncover. Mark Ruffalo as Rezendes is a tightly coiled spring. Tense with energy and driven to deliver some small justice to those abused, he lives and breathes the story like the racing heart of the team. Rachel McAdams is a measured presence who has the capacity to connect with the victims without losing her drive or need to go deeper. Brian d’Arcy James, an actor largely known for his television roles, plays Matt Carroll. A family man who aligns perfectly with his other writers, James portrays him with great strength of character and affection. It feels like we all have a Matt Carroll in our lives. Robinson is brought to life by the ever incredible Michael Keaton. Robertson must shape the machine that will rip apart the very fabric of Boston. Keaton’s balance, his contained emotion and contempt are unforgettable. There is a formidable quality to Robertson which Keaton embodies wholly without holding back the humanity of the individual. As Baron, played stoically and equanimously by Liev Schreiber, pushes the team farther, to go bigger – to the top – Keaton shoulders the immeasurable weight of revealing those whose lives have been destroyed, and does so with tremendous integrity and care.
Stanley Tucci brings a timeworn edge to his portrayal of Mitchel Garabedian. We don’t particularly like the terse, messy Garabedian but we greatly admire and champion his fierce commitment to his clients and to revealing the truth. He is a hero, albeit a reticent one, and Tucci knows precisely how to push our buttons while we fall in love with him. SPOTLIGHT skillfully demonstrates how the law, and those who practice it, can assist but just as equally collude. A legal and ethical razor’s edge embodied well by the cool, sharp Billy Crudup as attorney Eric Macleish. The film has a multitude of moving targets which are perfectly orchestrated by the deft hand of writer/directed Tom McCarthy. McCarthy has written a very intelligent and captivating script. It handles the subject matter with care but directness, and makes the audience think on its own but not to the point of frustration. The movie effectively communicates the agonizing pain and anguish of the victims but never fawns over the struggle of those affected.
It is worth noting that at the time of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight report Ben Bradlee Jr. was an editor at the paper. As we watch John Slattery make his way with ‘his’ Bradlee, we cannot help but think of Jason Robards as the elder Bradlee in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, an iconic performance which will live on forever as “the editor” to be onscreen. Slattery does not have the gravelly allure nor the hypnotic power of Robards, but as Ben Bradlee Jr. he demonstrates a quieter incisive power of his own. Also notable is the disembodied voice of a therapist who works with sexually predatory priests. I will not spoil the un-credited voice on the phone (you may guess who it is as I did) who allows Rezendes to grasp the staggering scope of abuse, but it serves as this film’s “Deep Throat” and it is a phenomenal ingredient.
SPOTLIGHT is perfectly balanced in every way. It is also a film which can be viewed and processed in varied ways: It is a fascinating look into the synergy of the journalists, it is a heart-wrenching story about the victims, it examines integrity and faith, and it is an allegory of sorts of the common man and his struggle against the ‘system.’ Gripping us, wounding our souls and championing those who risked everything, it is a film with a deeply gifted cast who serve their real-life subjects with tremendous respect and dignity, and it is a work of extraordinarily gifted and dexterous film-making.(5 / 5)
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery
Running Time: 128 minutes
SPOTLIGHT Movie Review