And the catch up train just keeps on rolling. Another one of the best films of the year, curiously being slammed by some critics as “overrated.” Don’t know what they’re talking about, because we haven’t had a great journalism movie since All the President’s Men.
The movie’s title refers to the “Spotlight” team on The Boston Globe, dedicated to investigating high-interest, high-profile cases in their city that take a year or more to publish. In 2001, the newspaper’s new editor (played by Liev Schreiber) encourages the team led by Michael Keaton to investigate Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston, who allegedly knew a priest was molesting children. While Keaton’s character and the rest of the team just believe it was a single priest who was moved from church to church to protect him, the Spotlight team uncovers a disturbing number of priests with similar stories.
The beautiful horror of this film is as you join veteran actors like Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, you slowly find just how many priests were sexually abusing children and their actions were being covered up. Initially the Spotlight team thinks it’s found 5 priests who’s actions were swept under the rug (deemed “bad apples”), but then through a victim’s support group, the number grows to 18 priests. After reading between the Catholic Church’s code words for these problem priests, they find 87 priests who were being shuffled around the Boston area after raping kids.
The escalating number is sickening enough, but the point is driven home as the Spotlight team interviews various victims and you realize (along with the journalists) that a pattern emerged. All the victims were isolated children from broken homes who turned to the Church for guidance and hope. When the victims were first approached by the priests to become friends, it was as if God himself offered to be their friend. Then these victims tragically reveal the acts these priests would force them to do. It’s not easy to watch and hear, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were filled with rage as you watched this movie.
Personally, I was born, raised, and still consider myself a Catholic. I remember when the sex abuse scandal broke out while I was in high school, fresh off the blow that was 9/11 (which does get referenced in this movie by the way), it was a lot to take in. But I found Spotlight does a great job of demonstrating what it took to break this story, not through sensationalist tactics but by showing you how airtight the Spotlight team had to be before they went to print.
It’s actually quite funny that in a year that showed people coming up with mathematical computations in thrilling-way in The Martian, we also have a film that shows proper editing and research as a nail-biting experience. Like The Martian, these mundane tasks are given weight by their stakes and the realization of a more sinister force. No, I’m not talking about the Church, I’m referring to the journalists’ own indifference.
Throughout the film, Keaton and his team are angrily confronted by attorneys and former victims demanding to know why they didn’t they ask years earlier when provided with this information. Keaton’s character admits to his team that he recalled receiving a list of pedophile priests eight years earlier but did nothing to follow up. And this is the film’s excellent theme: that society let these victims down. Officers, attorneys, judges, teachers, principals, and Church officials knew these cover ups were happening for decades; but every single one of them put their heads in the sand and said “none of my business.” It was a truly tragic revelation that showed how society is complicit in these crimes by refusing to speak up and look further.
Granted these themes would not have been delivered so effectively were it not for the spectacular script and every actor firing on all cylinders. Ruffalo himself goes on a three minute rant in argument with Keaton’s character on his desire for the facts to be double checked. The rant was so impassioned, you couldn’t help but sympathize with him…but also understand Keaton’s calm retort: “are you finished?” Perfect character development, exchange, and emotion all delivered in a sweet four minutes.
If I have a critique of this film is that it does go a bit heavy handed in a few places. Several scenes are shot with a church looming in the background like the Eye of Sauron, which was a tad on the nose. A few early scenes show the Church officials acting in scenes straight out of a mob flick that end up disappearing towards the much stronger end of the film. Still these flaws don’t take much away from the great story and solid acting.
Perhaps the final nail to drive the point home comes right before the credits. You’re given the bog standard what became of the main players involved title cards, but then you’re given a list of three columns with 20 lines each of every city in America that uncovered a sex abuse scandal. This goes on for THREE slides. Then it hangs to black for second…right before revealing five additional slides of INTERNATIONAL cities with similar scandals. If you’re reading this, you will find your city on that list.
This film was heartbreaking for me to watch, but it was also something necessary to witness. The fact it’s a damn good movie makes it all the more pressing for you all to see it. This is a high…