Directed by: Tom McCarthy
The Plot: Based on the true story of a Boston Globe editorial staff called Spotlight and their late 90’s investigation into the Catholic church. Specifically sexual abuse allegations against the local clergy.
The Film: A conundrum presents itself concerning Tom Mcarthy’s new motion picture Spotlight. Spotlight is no doubt an important film – but does that make it a great film? Already toting a few awards from some perimeter film festivals, Spotlight enters the public forum on November 20th with its critical laurels winking and sparkling from around its neck. It’s based on an extremely popular subject in the media. Namely, the media. Spotlight is also a story about child sexual abuses at the hands of the Catholic clergy in a city, Boston, structured around its thousands of church steeples. A solid movie by any stretch of the imagination, and one grounded in a subject too delicious for the dogs in the intelligentsia to ignore. But again, is Spotlight a great film?
I remember sitting down with Michael McDonagh’s Calvary last year around this time, and during that movie’s opening I remember thinking: We’re still doing movies about priests molesting kids? In a lapse of conscience and empathy I had mistakenly thought of the crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic clergy as something as banal as old news. And as cold as this may sound.. a former fad even. Thankfully, Calvary reminded me of how important this issue still is. It also turned out to be one hell of a movie. Maybe not as critically celebrated as John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Amy Berg’s award winning documentary Deliver Us From Evil – perhaps because Calvary took many more risks in that it shirked off most of the formalities and procedures of the typical ecclesiastical drama and went straight about the business of going for the heart and the throat of what it means to be a man of God in the 21st century – but Calvary is still, in my estimation, one of the best films of 2014. When I received the invitation to see Spotlight earlier this week I discovered my empathy for the subject was once again at low tide. My immediate reaction being: We’re still making movies about priests molesting kids…?
We are and we aren’t. Spotlight’s a film about creating a story. A narrative about building a narrative. A movie set firmly in the newsroom. One about the procedures of collecting and dissecting intelligence as it pertains to a story for mass publication. Liev Schriber’s Marty Baron wants to use his new position as editor in chief at The Boston Globe to investigate Church sexual abuses in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The idea is toyed with that because Baron is a Jew he’s simply pushing the story to give the good Christians of Boston a titty-twister. His minions in the Spotlight department – played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Bryan d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo – corroborate stories, track down leads, and conduct interviews with folks on all sides of the scandal. The film is at its most interesting during its many interviews. In one sequence the Globe reporters talk to a young father who was molested by his parish priest. His story is a tragic one – we can tell that immediately from the needle tracks running up his arms. In this tough, impoverished part of the world – South Boston – admitting that you were molested by anyone, let alone the neighborhood’s guardian angel, is tantamount to announcing to your neighbors that you’re queer. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Q of sexual ostracism being a big factor as to why these stories never saw any daylight during this period in Boston history.
Michael Keaton (a natural in this environment, as he was in Ron Howard’s underrated, and criminally under-published film The Paper) discovers that a den of high-caliber attorneys have been circumventing the criminal justice system entirely, while conducting private negotiations between their clients and the Catholic church hierarchy in Massachusetts. They’ve also been pocketing 30% of the standard issue 20,000$ settlement fees for every sexual abuse case they take. At a posh Catholic charity event Keaton confronts an attorney friend Sullivan (played with remarkable temper by actor Jamey Sheridan) about the lucrative byproduct of so many children suffering sexual exploitation at the hands of their ministers. Namely out of court settlements. His objection and revulsion barely contained, Keaton calls the practice a Boston “cottage industry.” Sullivan smugly surveys the expensive gathering around the two – the band playing, the drinks being freely distributed among the city’s well-groomed upper-tier – and says to Keaton: “You know how much good these guys do for this city? Relax. Enjoy the party.” If any single exchange of dialog in Spotlight defines the film, surely it is this one. It’s the one moment in this movie where it at least strives to become something other than a Dateline expose. The imagery of Sullivan’s statement is conveyable in technicolor. There has indeed been a party going on in Boston. Cash demands being forked over to lawyers. Young boys being served up to salivating pederasts. Priests being moved to fresher hunting grounds…
Tom McCarthy’s film isn’t perfect though. The actor/director’s filmmaking style has always been purposefully complacent, and being a procedural drama Spotlight is a film that benefits from lack of intrusion. Yet you’ll never be able to really escape the idea that 60 Minutes probably told this story better over a decade ago. Or that films like Doubt and Calvary did it better. The issue could be that the emotional core of the film is our team of newshounds, and though they are clearly bothered by this story the further they dig into it, in the end, once their Spotlight editorial has finally been published, there’s a thick air of piety blowing about the newsroom. McCarthy then makes us watch as Christians are forced to absorb through reading The Globe that their church committed some fairly horrific crimes against their own children. I don’t know that Spotlight needed this moment. I personally don’t know of a single human being who lived through the 80’s and 90’s – Christian or not – that had never heard of sexual abuse at the hands of a minister of God.
Last point. Though the cast is outstanding in this movie, there’s something really off with Mark Ruffalo’s performance. One of my long standing tenets in this business is that if it looks like someone is acting – it’s probably not good acting. Ruffalo’s performance is probably not good acting.
The Verdict: Spotlight feels like old news. It is a well made film however, and one worth a look. Though, as we now head into the final turn of year 2015, and within weeks national film critics will be nominating their ten best films from the year, Spotlight feels more like a movement right now then it does a movie. In my experience there are great films, and then there are films seemingly assembled with Academy Award recognition in mind. Spotlight is the latter.