Of its many remarkable qualities, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is its singular persistence of vision. This is a movie that attempts to juggle so many stories, characters and events (the majority of which either occur offscreen or are apocryphal to begin with) that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the result could have easily been a scrambled mess. Because the movie depicts the unfolding of the Catholic clergy abuse scandal, it could have easily gravitated toward exploitation or melodrama. Because the movie also depicts the workaday lives of reporters spending every moment of their spare time devoted to uncovering the facts of the case, the film could have become a character study of the obsessive personalities of journalists.
But Spotlight is none of those things. We do not get the obligatory scenes of a predatory priest inviting a young boy into the back of a giant foreboding Buick, nor do we get the same tired scene of the reporter’s wife crying, throwing a glass on the floor, and shouting no honey, you don’t pay enough attention to me or your family any more. This is a film where the majority of the action occurs in a small backroom office of the Boston Globe, where the characters don’t talk about Ethics and The American Way, but instead pour through old directories for lists of names and copy them hurriedly on to Excel spreadsheets. The action which does occur outside the office only relates to the process of the ongoing investigation, meaning that like the reporters, we become familiar with the lecherous priests through name and secondhand description only. Like many great films, it is tough on its audience. We don’t get the luxury of flashbacks or subtitles, reinforcing just how vast and expansive the cover-up truly was.
Another unique aspect of Spotlight is that it lacks a true protagonist. As the film opens in summer of 2001, we are introduced to the titular four-member investigative reporting team at the Globe, led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton). The Globe’s new managing editor is an outsider named Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber) whose first directive to the Spotlight crew is to reexamine allegations of sexual abuse in the church that has been peripherally covered by the paper in the last couple of decades. Baron’s outsider status is significant because, as we soon learn, native Bostonians have (unwittingly or purposefully) become immune and desensitized to individual claims of clergy abuse. The city’s populace, as well as the Spotlight team, believe that any scandal that exists is confined to a few bad seeds and little more.
But soon, the reporters begin identifying troubling trends. All of the legal suits against the Catholic Church were settled out-of-court by sleek attorneys such as Eric Macleish (a creepily smug Billy Crudup), with the church conveniently evading criminal penalties and public relations nightmares. The few victims they are able to track down are unwilling to speak out for fear of retribution or humiliation. Most disturbing of all, the team finds increasing evidence that pedophilic priests are not statistical outliers, but a symptomatic and systemic problem that the church is acutely aware of. Worse yet, rather than combat the problem, the church uses its considerable leverage to limit public knowledge of the details of such cases.
The reporters on the Spotlight team are played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. Along with Keaton, the reporters must deal with resistance not only from the church, but from legal, political and even journalistic systems that appear entirely aligned to the corrupt aims of the church. One of Spotlight’s best exchanges occurs between the reporters and Baron, who is at first reluctant to publish their early interviews with abuse survivors. The reporters seemed agitated at first, but Baron’s logic is sound – to limit coverage to the individual cases only reinforces the church’s desired narrative, which is that abuse is an abnormality rather than a norm. To truly expose the perverse depths of the scandal, the Spotlight team must expose how the pernicious institutional structure of the Catholic clergy permits such abuse to continue. This goes beyond assembling victim testimonies – challenging in its own right – and accessing secret church documentation kept under lock and key.
It is here that a lesser film would have constructed the pursuit of this secret information as the story’s prototypical MacGuffin – the mythical source of all narrative motivation, discovery and catharsis. But the screenplay, by director McCarthy and Josh Singer, is refreshing in the way that the uncovering of the documents provides only one relatively small facet of the larger story. Keaton’s character, for example, undergoes a fascinating moral development throughout the course of the film. At first, Robinson is depicted as a successful editor at the Globe with deep loyalties to Boston, as well as someone with friends in powerful professional circles who also happen to be ardent defenders of the church. By the end of the film, however, Robinson has severed his loyalties and friendships through his undeterred affiliation with Spotlight’s investigation. The film does a good job of illustrating how Robinson’s shift illustrates the rift between the personal and professional allegiances of journalists. This is wisely shown through understated subtlety rather than over-the-top histrionics.
Ruffalo's and McAdams’ characters are fascinating too (so is a wary lawyer for the abuse victims played by Stanley Tucci) but watching Spotlight, I found myself most interested by Schreiber’s character, Marty Baron, the new editor. He probably has less screen time than any of the other main characters, but in many respects, he is the film’s most enigmatic and complex. What are his true motivations behind reigniting the Globe’s investigation? They certainly are not based on personal retributions (he is a Jew from Miami), and one character speculates they may be based on the desire for upward mobility in the newspaper industry. Schreiber’s performance is so muted, controlled and mannered (he doesn’t even follow baseball, he solemnly tells Keaton) that he is almost impossible to read, yet in his clear discomfort in social situations, he is compulsively watchable. It is a fascinating and complex performance which, like Keaton’s and Ruffalo’s, unquestionably deserves serious Academy Award consideration.
The events of Spotlight take place over a six month period between 2001 and 2002 (the events of 9/11 make an ominous cameo appearance) and yet it still seems as though public awareness of sex abuse in the Catholic church has only scratched the surface. At one point in the film, an expert estimates that six percent of all clergy have committed some form of sexual abuse against a minor. If we are to believe that claim, along with the film’s broader conclusion that the cover-up was sanctioned and institutionalized rather than discrete and extraordinary, then why should we believe that this problem has gone away? Certainly, the Catholic church’s position has become far more evolved and conciliatory in the 13 years since the events of Spotlight. Pope Francis enjoys greater popularity among nonadherents than any recent Pope before him. But as McCarthy’s film shows, the sinful acts of individuals are usually the byproduct of calculation and politicking on the part of the large institutions that protect them. Or as Tucci’s worn-down lawyer sagely explains, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”
Rating: 4 stars