D: Tom McCarthy / 128m
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton, Richard Jenkins
In 2001, the Boston Globe newspaper hired a new editor, Marty Baron (Schreiber). Baron noticed a column in the paper about a Catholic priest, John Geoghan, who was known to be a paedophile, and a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) who claimed he had evidence that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law (Cariou), knew all about it and did nothing to stop Geoghan’s activities. Urging the paper’s Spotlight section – an investigative team made up of four people – to look more closely at the matter, Baron set in motion an investigation that would expand rapidly to reveal a far greater problem than one errant priest.
This is the story that Spotlight tells: the investigation into one priest’s predatory behaviour that revealed the systemic abuse of children over decades, and which had been covered up by the Catholic Church. It’s a tale of widespread abuse, and the political and legal corruption, and immorality, that goes with it. As the team – editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton), and reporters Mike Resendez (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), and Matt Carroll (James) – begin looking into the story they learn that the Globe was aware of some of the allegations being made as far back as 1996 following a similar case, but these were never followed up. They speak to the founder of a support group for people who have been abused by priests, Phil Saviano (Huff), who reveals that, based on what he’s been told, Goeghan is one of thirteen priests in the Boston area that have molested children over the years.
Shocked by this, the team divide their attention in different areas: Resendez contacts the lawyer, Garabedian, in order to find out what evidence he has; Pfeiffer meets with a victim, Joe Crawley (Creighton); and Carroll starts looking into the backgrounds of the priests Saviano has named. What emerges is a picture of abuse that appears to have been ignored or covered up by the Church, and which is still continuing. They also get in touch with an ex-priest, Richard Sipe (Jenkins), who worked at a “treatment centre” back in the Sixties. Since leaving the Church he’s made a thorough study of the “phenomena” of sexual abuse wihtin the priesthood, and in one particularly chilling telephone conversation with the Spotlight team he tells them his findings indicate that 6% of priests abuse children. Now the team has to rethink their strategy: based on Sipe’s findings, they’re no longer looking at thirteen priests in the Boston area, but ninety.
With the enormity of the problem now fully revealed, the team have to tread even more carefully, and refocus their investigation; it’s no longer enough to target Cardinal Law and his tacit allowance of the abuse. It’s now obvious that the abuse isn’t confined to Boston, it happens everywhere. The story becomes about how the Church itself allows this to happen and never disciplines its priests, preferring instead to move them around and still allowing them to have unsupervised access to children.
In the end, Spotlight broke the story in early 2002. It was the major news story of its day, and the movie recounts those days with a measured simplicity that avoids any potential hyperbole or grandstanding. Thanks to an intelligently constructed script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, the way in which the story unfolded is handled with a sensitivity and compassion for the victims that is offset by the Spotlight team’s increasing sense of disgust at the Church’s mistreatment of them. Each of the team is affected in their own way, showing just how pervasive the issue was, and without anyone realising. It’s a sobering realisation, that the abuse of children by a powerful organisation such as the Catholic Church – such a huge presence in so many people’s lives – can have such far-reaching consequences.
Thanks again to the script, the legal and moral issues surrounding the cases are clearly laid out on both sides, and Mitchell Garabedian aside, the lawyers involved in out of court settlements fare badly, as they put ethical issues aside and justify their actions by virtue of “just doing their job”. As one of these lawyers, Billy Crudup has a small but crucial role that highlights just how much one section of the Boston legal system was prepared to look the other way. And the Cardinal’s spokesman, a wily operator called Joe Connelly (Guilfoyle), is on hand to show how the political machine tried to keep the Church from being exposed by attempting to make it seem that the revelations would be bad for the city.
It’s safe to say that the movie exposes a lot more than the hypocrisy of the city’s movers and shakers, and it does so in a low key dramatic manner that allows the horror of the situation to seep through as the movie progresses. McCarthy and his talented cast never let us forget just how awful the amount of abuse was, and through their pursuit of the truth we get to see levels of betrayal that most of us would be hard pressed to even consider let alone believe in. And when a necessary delay in printing the story leads to an angry outburst by Resendez, we can sympathise with him, because by then the audience wants the story to be told equally as much as he does.
In many ways, Spotlight‘s steady pace and determined approach is unexpectedly gripping. As each new development unfolds, the movie steps up a gear, until the viewer is completely enthralled and can’t look away. It doesn’t matter that you know the outcome in advance, this is one of those movies that is so well constructed that you can’t help but be drawn along with it. Helping McCarthy make such an impact is his cast. Keaton is the wise old newspaperman, determined not to let the story get away and the Church off the hook, and patient enough to wait for the right evidence to come along. Ruffalo is the cocksure reporter who feels too much too often, and who uses his anger and disgust at the abuse to fuel his work. By contrast, McAdams’ lone female is affected in small ways, as in the way in which the news will be hurtful to her devout grandmother. And James’ dogged researcher learns that the issue is much closer to home than he’d realised (and which leads to one of the movie’s rare moments of humour).
It’s a powerful movie about a powerful subject and although the naysayers will point to diffusions and imperfections in the story – this didn’t happen like that, that didn’t happen like they say it did – the truth is still clear: abuse happened and the Church covered it up. In 2002 alone, Spotlight ran a further 600 articles based on what they learned from victims. What the movie reminds us is that looking the other way can be even more uncomfortable than looking straight at something that’s too horrible to contemplate.
Rating: 9/10 – one of 2015’s best movies, Spotlight is tense, absorbing, horrifying, and a must-see, with superb performances and and one of the year’s best scripts; it’s already won a shedload of well-deserved awards, and as a movie that tackles a disturbing subject with tact and sensitivity, should gain even more further down the road – it’s that good.