“How do you say no to God?” A victim of sexual abuse by a priest tells a team of investigative reporters, trying to explain why what happened happened.
However, God here stands for other things too — the authority, the system, the closed-knit city clique, and what happens when you go up against them.
Spotlight is based on Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning months-long investigation into sexual abuse by priests that went on for years with the complicit silence of the Catholic Church. By the end of the film, they have uncovered 70 such priests in Boston itself, and hundreds of victims.
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McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, knows the stark weight of that one sentence, and so attempts no embellishment. The film instead shines its light on the dark recesses where this truth hid.
It’s a gripping portrait of what happens when institutions decide they are bigger than the people who make them. It’s even a line the team of reporters hears, if not in so many words.
It’s also a portrait, and as real as it can get, of the kind of legwork that often is easy to discount when one sees a story of this impact. Editor Marty Baron (Schreiber) — “the first Jewish editor of Boston Globe” — Spotlight team’s head Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton), and his reporters (Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, and James as Matt Carroll) knock on countless doors, wait outside many closed ones, run down hundreds of lists, make thousands of calls, withstand overt and covert warnings, and face own Catholic beginnings, to bring out the extent of the rot.
Slattery (Mad Men) as Ben Bradlee Jr is the rake in this group of buttoned-down-collar, trousered journalists, who have joined a team known to work for up to a year on a story — and is allowed to do so.
At the same time, Spotlight acknowledges that the journalists are not the only heroes of this story, and are perhaps even a bit culpable for having missed signs of the rampant sexual abuse earlier. There are lawyers such as Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who have been slogging away in a small office, unacknowledged, to ensure that the cases reach even the trial stage — a task in itself. Then there are lawyers such as Eric Macleish (Bill Crudup), who have been co-opted after failing to fight back.
The film is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor nods for Ruffalo and McAdams (though Keaton, Tucci and even Schreiber despite his smaller role are as effective). But it is the shortlisting for Best Editing that is perhaps the most significant. The largely drab, linear film, almost as grey as photos in newspaper print, arranges its set pieces towards even suspense.
“The Church thinks in centuries… Are you willing to take that on?” the publisher asks the Boston Globe editor early on. However, it also takes a minute for things to turn. And even the Church realises this.
There is an interesting conversation Baron has with Cardinal Law, the head of the Boston Archdiocese, soon after he has joined. It is a “mandatory” meeting, he is told — an interesting aside on the nature of the city, where the Church runs the important schools, counts important people as its members, and runs galas where everybody knows everybody. As truth knocks on doors, even that defence, which should be familiar to us, comes up. It’s soon after 9/11, and a Church official tells Robby, “The Church is even more important in times such as these”.
“The city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” the Cardinal tells the editor at their meeting. “On the contrary sir,” Baron replies, “I think a paper works best when it works alone.”
You won’t hear it said better.