Movie Review: SPOTLIGHT (2015)
SPOTLIGHT (2015) has an ugly story to tell.
And it doesn’t shy away from telling it.
SPOTLIGHT (2015) takes a hard and honest look at the scandal in the Catholic Church involving abusive priests and shows how reporters at The Boston Globe broke the story in 2001. And the most disturbing aspect of it all which is clearly expressed in the movie isn’t believe it or not the staggering number of priests in the Catholic Church who sexually abused children in Boston, and as we find out during the Globe’s investigation, around the world— this alone is horrifying, absolutely horrifying, but what’s even worse, is that the higher-ups in the Church knew about it and let it happen.
And the movie doesn’t stop here. It widens its lens and examines blame in the legal system and with the journalists themselves, as the reporters realize how many times the story had been brought to their attention and yet no one did anything about it.
“Spotlight” refers to the investigative Boston Globe column written by a team of four reporters- Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives from Florida to overhaul the newspaper and increase readership, he turns Spotlight onto a story about a Catholic priest accused of molesting a young boy.
The Spotlight team isn’t keen on the story since they feel it’s been covered before. But Marty feels there’s more to the story and advises the Spotlight team to dig into it further. What they find is nothing short of earth-shattering. They soon discover evidence of two more priests in the Boston area accused of abusing children, and when they uncover evidence totaling 13 priests, they feel they have the makings of a real story.
They have no idea.
One of their sources, a psychiatrist who had been studying these cases for 30 years, tells them their number is very low. He suspects the number should be about 90 priests in the Boston area alone. The reporters don’t believe this estimate, but when they continue to follow the evidence and discover as many as 87 priests, they begin to fully understand the horror and the scope of the issue. They also realize that it’s not just a Boston problem. It’s nationwide and then some.
Marty tells his team that their work is still not finished, that the real story here isn’t just the number of cases, but that he suspects the Catholic Church knew about these priests and did not remove them. That’s the real story, he tells his reporters, and that’s the story that will ultimately lead to change.
The screenplay by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer tells a mind-boggling and horrifying story, and it tells it well. In spite of the fact that the villain in this movie is no doubt the Catholic Church, the film really doesn’t partake in religion bashing. It simply reveals a very sad truth- that atrocious crimes were allowed to happen by people who should have known better. These crimes were hidden in a veil of secrecy. The Spotlight investigation obliterated this veil, and the movie illustrates with great detail and care just how they did it.
SPOTLIGHT also sheds some insight into how so many people allowed this to happen. On more than one occasion, people in the film say that the Catholic Church does a lot of good for the world and that it doesn’t need this kind of scandal. After the events of September 11, we see news coverage of Cardinal Law speaking words of hope to the nation. It’s easy to see why people were quick to defend the Church and give them the benefit of the doubt, and how when push came to shove, lawyers and journalists would simply turn a blind eye on the situation, never guessing just how severe the problem was.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who’s instrumental in supplying key evidence to the Spotlight reporters, goes even further and blames the entire city of Boston, which he views as a closed society, that if you’re not Irish Catholic, you’re an outsider.
Others point out that editor Marty Baron is Jewish, and that he has an anti-Catholic agenda. Yet, in scenes where we see Marty in action, his agenda is clear: to keep the Boston Globe afloat. The story of the Catholic Church scandal is just that, a story that needs to be told.
In terms of generating emotion, SPOTLIGHT doesn’t skimp. There are numerous painful and sad scenes where the victims tell their stories to the reporters.
SPOTLIGHT boasts a brilliant ensemble cast. Michael Keaton, while not as sensational as he was in BIRDMAN (2014) still shines as reporter “Robby” Robinson. His cool professionalism allows him to lead his team along the dark path of the investigation, even as he learns that years ago he too had once passed up a story on the scandal, a story he barely remembers writing because it just didn’t register as important to him at the time.
Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the up-tempo workaholic reporter Mike Rezendes who becomes more and more emotionally charged the more he learns about the case. Likewise, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also turn in strong performances as reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll. They too become emotionally enraged, Matt because he has young children, and Sacha because she’s Catholic and goes to church with her very religious Nana.
And Liev Schreiber is near perfect as the calm, cool and efficient editor Marty Baron.
SPOTLIGHT also has a superior slate of supporting players. Stanley Tucci is outstanding as attorney Mitchell Garabedian. His take on the quirky angry embittered attorney is probably my favorite performance in the movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucci receives a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.
John Slattery from TV’s MADMEN plays Ben Bradlee Jr., one of the Globe’s editors, and he’s fabulous as well. Other notable performances include Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, Robby’s source inside the Catholic Church who resists Robby’s efforts to get him to talk for nearly the entire movie; Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, the sketchy leader of a victim’s group who seems to have an agenda to bring down the Church yet his evidence surprisingly turns out to be accurate; and Billy Crudup as Attorney Eric Macleash who by not filing cases and agreeing to private back room deals with Church leaders helped keep the scandal under wraps for years.
Crudup enjoys one of the best moments in the film when he’s finally cornered by Robby and Sacha. Robby tells him that if he doesn’t talk, the story Robby writes will be about how Eric helped keep these child molesters out of jail, at which time Eric drops the bombshell that when he first received evidence about these crimes he went to the press, delivered the materials to the Globe, and he was ignored.
Director Tom McCarthy’s crisp editing keeps the story in SPOTLIGHT moving quickly, and even though its subject is grim and tragic, the pace never deadens under the weight of the subject matter. The story unfolds at a near perfect pace.
SPOTLIGHT also has an emotionally effective music score by Howard Shore.
SPOTLIGHT tells an extremely disturbing story, and it’s one that everyone needs to hear. Yes, it tells the ugly tale of abuse inside the Catholic Church. It also tells the inspiring story how in the face of adversity a small group of reporters stuck to their guns and broke what many thought wasn’t even a story. But most importantly the message in SPOTLIGHT is that people need to remain vigilant, and they need to speak out against the wrongs of society. The victims here for the most part were children in underprivileged families. They had no one to stand up and defend them from these predator priests. Those who should have protected them, the Church leaders, did not. And no one else bothered to pay attention.
That’s the story SPOTLIGHT tells, and it tells it well.
It joins SICARIO (2015) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) on my short list of best movies of the year.