Spotlight (2015), starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci; directed by Tom McCarthy, co-written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
“Sometimes it's easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark. Suddenly, a light gets turned on and there's a fair share of blame to go around. I can't speak to what happened before I arrived, but all of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”
- Marty Baron, editor for The Boston Globe, speaking to the Spotlight team of reporters
The story of the sexual abuse cover-up scandal of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston could easily be an exploitive one to put on film. It might have slammed Christian faith itself as something naive, or it could have been a film that gave Protestant denominations easy reach to criticize Catholicism. But as we will see, there is more to this than “just religion.”
When a spotlight is shone upon something in the darkness, it exposes that thing to the light. This is an obvious thing to say, of course, and speaking quite basically one probably understands the what this sort of experience is. However, how one understands the revealed thing may not be so readily apparent. Perhaps things were being built in the darkness for a long time before the light was cast upon the space where the building-up occurred. So, while one sees by the light, it may well be possible that one's initial glance may also take some longer time to examine what they now see, so as to have the best understanding of the exposition that they can.
This is indeed the trajectory of writer/director Tom McCarthy’s fifth film. It is an unveiling, it is a slow-burn smolder that ignites to a brightly lit flame. The screenplay, cowritten with Josh Singer (screenwriter of “The Fifth Estate,” the story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange) has a tough job ahead of it, considering the film that McCarthy wants to share with us: how can this story be told appropriately, fairly, and without it being crass and exploitive (on all sides)? Screenplays which handle difficult subject matter can be what makes or breaks a good film, but in this case we have something quite substantial and well-constructed from the hands of these writers.
The film's opening exposition is quite simple and engrossingly effective: a simple singular title screen, “Spotlight,” and we have the transition to a tracking shot inside the hallway of a Boston police station in 1976. Night time hours, slow movement. We see the turned back of a senior police officer as he walks the corridor to the front desk of the station, where we then see a younger officer sitting. Then there is the rushed arrival of a man in the entryway to the police station, who turns out to be the Assistant District Attorney. And then, we see a bishop of the Church, who is sitting talking quietly but forcefully with the mother of two children, who are colouring pages in an interview room. Within the two minutes or so of the film’s opening, we're introduced to the power structures that will dominate the story: the Boston Police Department, the city's legal superiors, and the hierarchy of Archdiocese of Boston. The cloak of darkness of this particular night is quite telling: dark things will remain in the dark, and as the archdiocese’s black limousine speeds away with the bishop and the now-released pedophile priest Father John Geoghan, they'll be swept away by “the powers that be.”
These are structures larger than any single man. But they are indeed made up of men. And whether by intention or by obliviousness, the collusion makes sure that information about people - relationships of humanity, we might say - remains hidden and diminished within the structure, so that the structure is kept of primary importance.
The exposition of the opening scene then gives way to events going on at the the turn of our century. We see now that the ways in which we used to access and spread information had already been changing. In the decade leading up to the 2001 year in which the majority of the story takes place, the internet developed and things became more centralized to access. Relational footwork of the news reporter of yore had changed. There's even a symbolic scene of a reporter's retirement; the inference to us given as him being “the old way of how things have always been done.” We are given hints and echoes of this as a priest sermonizes about “the worldwide web,” and images from the documents room of the newspaper, showing us the retrieval of clippings of past Boston Globe articles.
Into this story of religious powers and principalities enters one Jew of deep integrity: Martin Baron (played with effective awareness by Liev Schreiber), late of The Miami Herald, and new Editor In Chief of Boston Globe. He signals the entry of an outsider, new to the scene in many different ways: a nonresident of the iconic city; someone clearly and definitively a nonpartisan in the institutions of Church (though Cardinal Law, played by Len Cariou, gives Baron a gift-wrapped copy of the Catechism) and the state, but very much willing to take his reporters into a tutelage on how to navigate the legalities of taking on revisiting the archdiocese’s doings.
He quietly and subversively takes the Spotlight team under his wing, and their work becomes almost covert. Not just in the newsroom, where suspicions and questions and allegiances quietly flutter like the edges of paper under a desk fan, but also throughout all of Boston, where the eyes and ears of the Church, the state, and its law enforcement, are part of the city itself:
Cardinal Law: “If I can be of any help, Marty, don't hesitate to ask. I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together.”
Marty Baron: “Thank you. Personally I'm of the opinion that for a paper to best perform its function, it really needs to stand alone.”
One might imagine Jesus thinking similarly as Marty Baron does, regarding power structures…
The Spotlight team of Walter “Robby” Robinson, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll are seasoned professionals in doing what they do. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Robinson waking up to reclaim integrity is another feather in his cap as an excellent actor, and Mark Ruffalo’s capture of Mike Rezendes’ agitated movements and intense tics are a match for Keaton’s acting. Rachel McAdams gives us a performance in Sacha Pfeiffer’s life as balancing act, bending between the relationship with her overtly Catholic grandmother and the secretive investigative work she undertakes for the story. Matt Carroll, as portrayed by Brian D’Arcy James, has the weary resolve of wanting to keep his family intact amidst the duration of the investigation. The ensemble cast here is excellent, without exception.
As Baron gets to know Spotlight he also comes to better understand their talent, and settles into the background quietly behind them to support their work. He speaks only when guiding. Spotlight seems eager to undertake the story as “part of the job,” but as each of the team moves forward with their investigations, it becomes clear that the newspaper has had its own biases and ties to the bigger picture of the scandal. And for quite some time, too. The members of Spotlight find themselves on the end of the larger organization of the newspaper not having done due diligence in their own work.
The Boston Globe's complicity, while seemingly more a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees, rests heavily upon the team, and a resounding phrase spoken throughout the film by them is “You want to be on the right side of this,” as they investigate the collusion of the power structures involved. Each of the team wants to see their prior obliviousness resolved, and they're willing to work with and put faith in their Editor In Chief. Their Catholic roots are tested and found weak, their heritage is understood as being about to be forsaken - all at the behest of the one man who will not let his own freedom side with the corrupt institutions:
Marty Baron: “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy; show me the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn't have to face charges, show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top, down.”
Ben Bradlee Jr.: “Sounds like we're going after [Cardinal] Law.
Marty Baron: “We're going after the system.”
If Marty Baron might be our “a type of Christ” - admittedly an inference of my own doing - then it is in the person of lawyer Mitchell Garabedian that we find our “John the Baptist” forerunner, Garabedian being the voice of one crying out in the (systemic) wilderness, having pursued the indictment against the Church for a decade already. Mitch Garabedian offers to Mike Rezendes the chilling understanding of the deep collusion of power structures in Boston, Catholicism, law enforcement, and the District Attorney's Office and various other lawyers:
Mitchell Garabedian: “This city, these people... making the rest of us feel like we don't belong. But they're no better than us. Look at how they treat their children. Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
The character of Richard Sipe, heard in several scenes as a disembodied voice on the phone only (voiced by longtime character actor Richard Jenkins) might be thought of as the person who rounds out a sort-of trinity that guides the Spotlight team. Sipe, a non-practicing Catholic who was a former priest and Benedictine monk, and now a psychotherapist as Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor, describes the struggles of the clergy with affectation and insight. Even as the Spotlight team reels from the massive cover-up designed by the power structures of the Church and legal institutions, each of them, particularly Mike Rezendes, seem to hear from Sipe that faith can still be faith.
We are also introduced to several of the survivors of the sexual abuse, who are victims of the subsequent machinations too. As mentioned, this sort of thing could easily have been exploitive of the sexual abuse, and McCarthy deftly steers clear of this, even while letting descriptive frank dialog speak from the lips of the men and women who suffered. If I may say, Spotlight isn't anything of a seedy sort nature at all, since it is not dwelt upon in overtly harrowing ways for melodrama.
Tom McCarthy directs his film with a fine line between our characters dialog and the show-me-don’t-tell-me methods of filmmaking. Newsroom films, especially ones that recount actual historical events, have danger of falling into an idiot lecture, wherein the characters needlessly dialog with each other the information they (and we) certainly are already aware of. Such sorts of exposition can be overblown and melodramatic, especially with amped-up camerawork. But McCarthy and Singer keep the dialog here as being like that of the old Dragnet TV show, wherein we are all given “just the facts, ma'am.” This is the film's benefit - and is ultimately the benefit of being a Christian who watches the film - because we are left to take in the information ourselves, finding ourselves being the ones who draw our own conclusions as the storyline progresses. This is done with very little intrusion from the filmmaking itself. In fact, the style of the film’s visuals is almost bland - an aspect of the film that reviewers have criticized but which I find as being intentionally seamless, understated for the sake of the subject matter. It also allows the ensemble cast to shine uniformly throughout the piece, without anyone trying to outdo one another. We can genuinely feel that the actors want to see the best possible outcome of not just this film's ending, but also the larger impact around the world that it may have in resolving the crises of sexual abuse in the Church.
Just prior to the roll of the screen credits, a sobering image is played out in Mitchell Garabedian’s office: the Spotlight team has printed it's exposition, and has a day to await the reaction of the readership of the Boston Globe; Mike Rezendes stands at the elevator (having personally given Garabedian a copy of the paper), and looks in through the window of the lawyer's interview room, where a young mother sits with her two children who are quietly colouring pages…
… when the credits do begin to roll, we read onscreen of Cardinal Law's resignation and subsequent reassignment to The Vatican. As well, four screen cards, three columns wide each, confirm for us ongoing awareness of hundreds of sexual abuse investigations throughout the entire world, across all continents.
Spotlight is a needed film. It is a story that has had to be told, and other reviewers have made comparison to the Watergate scandal film “All The President's Men” in what it accomplishes, and they are right: transparency, accountability, all of the hoped for checks and balances. And yet beyond all of that, what Tom McCarthy and his stellar cast seem to be asking for is the same sort of healing and restorative love that all humans need - something far, far apart from power structures - yet he pointedly asks for humanity from the Church itself.
I cannot help but think that Jesus asks this same thing, of the church, and of all of humanity.