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SPOTLIGHT

 

Hold the Presses

Open Road Films
 128 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Tom McCarthy 
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton
A
Spotlight

In many ways, investigative journalism resembles police detective work. The detective or reporter interviews witnesses, follows up on leads, runs into dead ends, and eventually, if all goes well, makes the arrest or breaks the story. However, while there are several good movies made every year about law enforcement investigations, there have been very few made about investigative journalism, and many of those, like this year’s Truth, focus on what journalists get wrong. As far back as I can recall, I had only seen one great movie about the journalistic investigative process, All the President’s Men. That is, until this year. Spotlight lacks the star power of the Redford/Hoffman vehicle and its overwhelming national significance, but it’s every bit as powerful and, in its own way vital, of a movie.

 

Spotlight is the story of the Boston Globe’s lengthy investigation into and ultimate revelation of a major sex scandal involving the higher ups in the Boston Catholic Church, including Cardinal Bernard Law. Although reports of child molesting priests were common for decades, in Boston and elsewhere, few people were aware of its extent or the lengths to which the Church went to keep it quiet. Dozens of Boston area priests were involved, and reassignments and hush money payments were common.

 

The investigation begins at the suggestion of the Globe’s new managing editor, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber). After meeting with the paper’s elite investigative unit, the “Spotlight” team, he shows Spotlight editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) a short local story about a priest and suggests that the paper follow up on it. Robinson shelves the unit’s ongoing probe into a local government corruption story and assigns his reporters, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) to the sex scandal story.

 

The reporters start by interviewing two key attorneys involved in the legal proceedings in some of the cases. A high-end corporate lawyer (Billy Crudup) insists that there is nothing to the story and falls back on confidentiality agreements and sealed documents to bolster his case. One crusading attorney (Stanley Tucci) for some of the victims, however, begins providing the reporters with valuable leads, although he too has to abide by a maze of court rulings and sealed documents.

 

Although the reporters in Spotlight start out as disinterested investigators seeking the truth, the scandal starts hitting home for them. They are all Catholic, albeit in most cases lapsed, and the Church’s representatives use that as a method of appealing to them not to investigate for the “good of the Church.” The difference between “us,” the native Catholic Bostonians, and “him,” Marty Baron, the Jew from Miami, is made quite clear to Robby by an unctuous palm greaser (Paul Guilfoyle). As the investigation proceeds, Sacha finds herself unable to go to church with her elderly grandmother anymore. Matt has an even worse reaction when he learns that one of the pederast priests lives down the block from him and his family. And Robby shares in the guilt, when he learns that the Globe knew about the story years earlier and buried it in a small article in the local news section.

 

Spotlight is an excellent procedural about the news business, offering the same depth of detail as did All the President’s Men. The film will likely become required viewing in journalism classes across the country. But director Tom McCarthy does more than just show reporters at work; he reveals the incredible toll that the scandal has taken on literally thousands of victims over the year.

 

The most powerful scenes in Spotlight are those in which the victims tell their stories. Although they discuss some sexual acts, for the most part it’s a nearly fatalistic retelling of a shameful chapter in their lives. McCarthy makes the decision to keep the movie low key and avoid angry outbursts and sensationalism, instead letting the stories speak for themselves. There is only one really emotional outburst in the movie, an angry tirade by Mark Ruffalo that is more striking precisely because the rest of the film is so low key.

 

Real life events also come into play in Spotlight. As the investigation begins picking up speed, the summer of 2001 turns to fall and all of Boston comes to a halt on 9/11. Ironically, Cardinal Law becomes a symbol of hope for Bostonians, trying to inspire them to keep the faith. Robby and his boss Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), son of Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame, have to pull the reporters off the Church story to have them chase down 9/11 follow-up stories.

 

Eventually, the real story in Spotlight was the cover-up, not the molestations themselves. And, in the city of Boston, at least, the cover-up involved far more than the Catholic Church. Civic leaders, governmental officials, the courts and even some of those at the Globe, knew or had reason to know what was going on but for decades did nothing, as the numbers of broken children steadily increased, and their victimizers avoided being brought to justice. It is this massive web of hypocrisy that the original investigation ripped apart and that the movie powerfully revisits. During the closing credits, a camera scroll lists dozens of cities worldwide in which Church sex scandals were documented, a chilling end note to the movie.

 

Howard Hawks once said that a good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. Spotlight has no bad scenes, only a succession of good scenes leading to one another. And it does so without any overly showy moments or wasted ones. On every level, from the acting to the writing to the photography that captures the grit of Boston, this is a great film. Although there’s still a couple of months in the year left for Oscar-eligible movies, in my view, Spotlight is the best movie of the year.

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