Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” (2015)
On rare occasions Hollywood can still demonstrate an ability to make good films about muck-raking journalism and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”, based on actual events, is one of these infrequent gems. The movie traces how an investigative journalism unit called Spotlight within The Boston Globe newspaper uncovered and exposed a huge scandal of child molestation and deliberate and systematic cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church in the Boston metropolitan area. The reporters quickly came up against a wall of denial, threats and (most of all) complicity and indifference that ran deep throughout Boston society and its political elite. For all its sophistication as a metropolis of a fair few million people, and offering a high standard of living and education, Boston is revealed to be insular and in some ways still possessed of a small-town mentality that grovels before rich and powerful institutions and bullies the vulnerable and the weak.l
Pedestrian in style and approach, “Spotlight” looks as if it had been made for TV viewing and its narrative employs a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint that fits the film’s matter-of-fact tone. At times the film feels a little like a documentary being made on the fly. It starts with the appointment of Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber) as The Boston Globe’s new editor, fresh from Florida and tasked with the thankless job of promoting the newspaper and jazzying it up against the onslaught of Internet-based news media, staff sackings and tighter budgets. At the same time, the Spotlight unit, led by Walter Robinson aka Robbie (Michael Keaton), is casting around for a project to do. Barron sees his opportunity and suggests that Spotlight should revisit an old story about a pedophile Roman Catholic priest. A bit reluctantly, the Spotlight unit agree to take up the story again, start researching the issue again, make inquiries and gradually uncover a much larger story of how a senior Cardinal, Bernard Law, in the Roman Catholic Church hushed up abuse cases, bought off lawyers and families with money, reassigned priests to other parishes where they committed new offences and pressured families and others not to talk about the abuse or to speak to the press.
The reporters not only have to overcome denial and duplicity within the Church and among its faithful and charity organisations, but also their employer’s inertia and the prickliness and suspicion of activist Paul Saviano (Neil Huff) and the rather cranky lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who are fighting for the victims’ rights for compensation and to be heard and acknowledged. Robbie himself wrestles with his own conscience that he failed to chase up the issue years earlier (and perhaps prevented new cases of sexual abuse) when it first arose. All the Spotlight team members also wrestle with loss of faith and disillusionment about the Catholic Church: they had been brought up as Catholics, some of their relations still are devout Catholics and they realise they may be shunned and ostracised by their families and communities once they expose the scandal.
The way in which the Spotlight reporters research the story and uncover more shocking and deeper aspects to the issue, to the point where they discover the scandal isn’t about just a few “bad apple” priests but about the Church’s own culture and how it is deeply situated in Boston society such that it can pull favours and literally make and break politicians’ careers, and ruin The Boston Globe if it wanted to, drives the film and gives it its energy and force. Director McCarthy co-wrote the script and it is very tight and focussed. All the actors are fully committed to their roles and all give of their best – in particular, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as two of the Spotlight reporters, and Tucci as cantankerous Garabedian. Although the actors all worked as an ensemble, Ruffalo probably edges out everyone else in his role as Mike Rezendes who is energised by the story and throws himself heart and soul into the investigation.
The film celebrates investigative journalism as it should be done and the nature of the work as well: it covers the research, the teamwork, the inquiries, visits to libraries and city council records departments, the value of support staff like librarians at The Boston Globe, and the crazy hours journalists often work to get interviews and meet deadlines. A plea for traditional journalism as opposed to the sloppy journalism of notorious online “citizen journalists” like Bellingcat is being made. The film can also be seen as an examination of evil and how evil can spread and maintain itself when otherwise good people fail to stand up and defend the weak and defenceless against injustice and oppression, but look the other way. Garabedian may note that it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse a child – but the film stresses that the village can also stop the abuse, if individuals within the village are courageous enough to see the abuse, call it for what it is and raise attention and awareness.