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Review: Spotlight

November 13, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Spotlight PosterWhen allegations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston first started to leak out, many parishioners had trouble believing the news.  But this denial was made far too easy by the institution’s willingness to silence the scared victims, keeping the reports and court documents out of the public eye.

The abuses were able to continue because the church chose to hide behind a veil of secrecy, putting the guilty priests on sabbatical at neighbourhood recovery houses instead of defrocking them, before shuffling them around to different parishes to hide their trails.

When the Boston Globe broke this story wide open in early 2002, after a year of intense fact checking and dedicated reporting, a media firestorm was ignited, forcing the entire church to confront these sins that they weren’t yet willing to confess.

Directed by Tom McCarthy, from a razor sharp and highly literate screenplay that he co-wrote with Josh Singer, Spotlight recounts the true story of the reporters who worked tirelessly to expose the church and hold these priests accountable.  Thoroughly detailing every step of their investigation and the admirable amount of work that went into filing their Pulitzer Prize-winning article, this is an example of intelligent adult filmmaking at its absolute best, and one of the most powerful movies of the year.

The team of investigative journalists at the centre of the story includes Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who work in a special newspaper division known as Spotlight.  When they are assigned by their new editor (Liev Schrieber) to investigate these allegations of sexual abuse, they start to uncover a massive web of lies and legal cover ups that goes way deeper than anyone could have imagined, in their fight to have strategically hidden court documents released.

They reach out to lawyers like Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) and Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), who both took different approaches in handling many of these cases, emotionally scarred victims Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), as well as anyone else willing to come forward.  Even though many of those affected have been forced to remain silent or are too scared to speak up, the truth becomes too hard to ignore when they start finding compelling evidence linking a shocking number of priests to child molestation cases, a systemic problem trickling down from the Vatican.

Expertly crafted from start to finish, Spotlight stylistically recalls classics of the 1970s, and comparisons to All the President’s Men are absolutely warranted.  The result is a tautly paced journalistic thriller in which most of action unfolds through dialogue and takes place in cramped offices and basement archives, authentically capturing the world of reporters with a simmering sense of suspense coursing through its veins.  There is a feeling of urgency to their reporting, not only because another paper could publish a story that undermines their work, but also because of the inherent need to reveal the truth.

This is a searing critique of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, an organization that provides little transparency and possesses excessive amounts of control, making it far too easy for those within to abuse their power, even to the point of turning a blind eye to some of the most disgusting crimes.  The film celebrates the importance of journalism, recognizing the reporters who were brave enough to face incredible pushback from one of the oldest and most powerful institutions in the world, in order to break a story that needed to reach the public even though it understandably shook the church to its core.

But Spotlight isn’t a takedown of spiritual belief in itself, and is made all the more thought provoking and almost miraculous for this very reason, offering a nuanced look at the dividing line between personal faith and organized religion, and finding a balance between the two.  Sacha Pfeiffer reveals that she still goes to church every week with her grandmother, even if just out of tradition and habit, and the majority of the newspaper’s subscribers are either practising or lapsed Catholics.  The reporters on the case all grew up going to these churches and attending schools run by priests, like pretty much everyone else in Boston at the time, and this is exactly what makes their revelations hit home even more.

We don’t know much about the personal lives of these reporters, yet we know who they are, and are given enough little details to keep us engaged and make them feel relatable.  The entire ensemble cast delivers uniformly brilliant work, finding a crackling rhythm together in their delivery of the sharply worded dialogue.  Michael Keaton shines in an intense and focused performance, Rachel McAdams has rarely been better, and Stanley Tucci commands the screen.  Even the bit players are given memorable scenes, including Michael Cyril Creighton, who is a standout in his brief moments of screen time.

Mark Ruffalo in many ways provides the emotional anchor of Spotlight, delivering a masterfully nuanced and surprisingly moving performance, as the dogged reporter starts to reveal his own tested faith through both his determination to finish writing this story and his terror of what it implies.  During one of the film’s most quietly moving exchanges of dialogue, his character confesses that he used to like going to church, and is now unsure if he can ever go back.  It’s a profoundly symbolic moment that continues to resonate, mirroring the feelings of betrayal that many of us still feel in response to this scandal.

Because of this, you could say that my personal connections to the subject matter of Spotlight run pretty deep.  As someone who was raised Catholic, but has come to severely question the church’s pretty much unwaveringly conservative views on homosexuality and women’s rights over the years, I’m not alone in seeing the epidemics of child molestation as a defining part of their history.  This was and continues to be a moment when the Catholic Church had the chance to do the right thing, but ended up doing the exact opposite of that, and have never fully come clean or atoned for it.

Fascinating, involving and emotionally powerful, Spotlight is a gripping exposé that understands the power of words, and the metaphorical excitement of watching a printing press spring to life, to offer some of its most thrilling moments.  Densely packed with compelling details, and infuriating revelations that are heartbreakingly revealed to be just the tip of a much larger iceberg, this is a story that feels both timely and timeless, and that’s precisely what makes the film pack such a hard punch.

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