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New Release Review - SPOTLIGHT

The story of The Boston Globe's uncovering of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.


Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

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


This is a story of professionals simply doing their jobs, and doing them well. Spotlight never asks us to be angry at the Catholic Church. It shouldn't have to. That's the job of newspapers like The Boston Globe. May they continue to do their jobs well.




Try to imagine if it were revealed that 6% of McDonalds employees had molested children. Now imagine that the hierarchy of McDonalds not only knew about this, but hushed it up, simply transferring those employees to new branches of the franchise. McDonalds simply wouldn't exist now. It couldn't exist. Yet those same stats apply to another global institution, the Catholic Church, for whom it's business as usual. Last year, not too far from where I'm writing this in Ireland, the bodies of 800 children were found in a septic tank. They had been discarded there by the Catholic officials who ran a home for unwed mothers; so much for Christian burials. When the news broke, the nation was rightly furious for a couple of days, but the following Sunday, Catholics went back to Mass as though it had never happened, couples got married in churches, children were baptised in the very same buildings where molestations had occurred. The Church of course have refused to offer as much as an apology. They know nobody dares to take them on, especially in a country as Catholic as Ireland. Because of this, there's a general ambivalence towards the atrocities committed by their members.
It's not just Ireland; this was a global culture of child rape, and the American Irish-Catholic city of Boston was particularly badly hit as priests abused their positions to violate hundreds of working class children from deprived areas of the city. It took an exposé from the city's leading newspaper, The Boston Globe, to bring the scale of abuse to light. I don't live in Boston, but I suspect it didn't impact church attendance much.
Tom McCarthy's movie conveys this ambivalence in chilling fashion. His journalists aren't the moral crusaders you might expect from such a story. It takes the arrival of an outsider, editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Miami Jew (something several characters remind us of throughout the film) unaware of the power the church wields in Boston, to shake things up and finally get an investigation underway. Baron assigns it to the 'Spotlight' crew, a team of specialist investigative reporters headed by Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton). Initially they're reluctant to cover the story, save for Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who seems motivated by his antagonism towards the church more than any empathy for their victims. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is worried the story might upset her church-going grandmother. Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) doesn't seem too interested until he discovers a group of paedophile priests are secretly living in a house in his own neighbourhood. Robby is worried about the influential sources he might upset. Marty is quietly passionate about the story, but we suspect he's motivated by career advancement.
The portrayal of the Spotlight team reminded me of the cops from that great '90s TV show Homicide: Life on the Street, treating their work as just that until it begins to finally eat away at them personally. The abuse victims are shown how the journalists would have seen them, initially as inconveniences, almost comic-tragic figures, eventually coming to haunt the Spotlight crew, who previously ignored their pleas years before.
Director Tom McCarthy has done a great job of getting usually ostentatious actors like Keaton and Stanley Tucci (brilliant as the film's one genuine moral crusader, a lawyer representing abuse victims) to deliver dialled back performances. When Ruffalo breaks down and delivers the closest moment the film has to an 'Oscar speech' it feels out of place, but necessary, like an intervention.
Comparisons to All the President's Men are wide of the mark. McCarthy never comes close to Alan J Pakula's visual storytelling. Spotlight plays like a TV movie, with very little conveyed beyond McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer's dialogue. But it's a damn good TV movie, one with a handful of genuinely great performances, and one that never takes the easy route of heartstring pulling. This is a story of professionals simply doing their jobs, and doing them well. Spotlight never asks us to be angry at the Catholic Church. It shouldn't have to. That's the job of newspapers like The Boston Globe. May they continue to do their jobs well.
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