Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) is now playing in select theaters. It opened in half a dozen cities nationwide, was critically well-received, and did brisk business. It was only after that promising start start the studio seemed to have any faith in it, which is unfortunate. It is not only a well-made film, but also an important one. Thankfully, it does not take the attitude of being Important, and commendably refrains from on-the-sleeve melodramatics, which is a rarity in films with potentially explosive themes.
The image of Bing Crosby’s congenial Irish Father O’ Malley has gone the way of the dinosaur. That is apt, because even the velvet-voiced actor behind the collar was reportedly an abusive father (one son wrote a “daddy dearest” tell all; two additional offspring committed suicide). The Church itself was the cause of its own bad press, and most of the world became privy to its dirty laundry when the Boston Globe published a series of articles in 2002 exposing pedophilia in the ranks of Catholic clergy.
Actually, cracks were beginning to show elsewhere before that infamous exposé. A few years prior, the Indianapolis Star ousted sixteen pedophile priests in the ranks of the Lafayette diocese. Still, that does not compare to the Boston Globe revelation of (approximately) 90 priests who were serial pedophile abusers in the diocese of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. This is the topic of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight.
When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at the Boston Globe, he inquires about a follow-up to a recent column about a lone pedophile priest. In a meeting with Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Baron speculates that this may not be an isolated incident and deserves further investigation. That’s how things happen; like a silent wind blowing with no indication where it came from or where it is going.
Robinson assembles a crack team, which includes Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian D’ Arcy James). With barely a journalistic scratch, the number jumps from one pedophile priest to six, then to possibly thirteen. Perhaps the most unnerving scene in the film follows. A disembodied voice, belonging to an insider, calls the “Spotlight” team.
“Do you think thirteen pedophile priests is an accurate number?” the caller is asked. “Oh no,” he answers. “Too high?” “Too low. It’s probably closer to 90.” His reply is so nonchalant, it makes the hairs on the nape of the neck stand on end and gives credence to an attorney’s previous observation: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”
There is no dimly lit John Huston figure or a Deep Throat informant hiding in the shadows of a subterranean parking garage. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer refrain from any “let’s dazzle the Academy Awards committee” moments. Rather, they depict Pfeiffer’s struggles loading a dishwasher and portray Baron as an unmarried Jew (he’s too busy to wed) who dislikes baseball and quietly exerts his obsessive determination in the work at hand, despite his 53% Catholic reader base. McCarthy and team comprise a blue-collar ensemble for Spotlight. It’s a smart choice which enables us to bristle in empathy with (lapsed) Catholic Rezendes’ sense of futility: “I always imagined I could and would go back to the Church.” Of course, he realizes he can’t. The shepherds, engulfed in the egotism of their position, have thoughtlessly and recklessly betrayed their flock and earned their prodigals.
Schreiber, Mc Adams, and Ruffalo shine in a cast with no weak links. With steely reserve, Keaton seems to be continuing his comeback roll that began with Birdman. Equally noteworthy is Richard O’ Rourke as the retired Fr. Paquin who, when confronted, admits, “yeah, I fooled around, but I wasn’t gratified,” (as if having overdosed on an apologetics course). “It wasn’t rape. I never raped anybody. I know the difference.” “How do you now the difference?” “Because I was raped myself.” Paquin’s sister sends the investigators packing. She is a dogmatic cheerleader protecting the structure at all costs; a sturdy, defiant shield for those claiming rite of apostolic succession. It’s hardly the bishop alone who is an enabler.
The Spotlight team itself is not spotless, having previously shuffled the story to a back burner, allowing an untold number of victims to fall through the cracks. Procrastination and pride are unveiled as mortal sins and, like John the Baptizer in a desert, attorney Mitchell Garabedian (the underrated Stanely Tucci) has been fighting the good fight all along.
Horror and religion are bedmates that do not pop out of a closet, synchronized to shrieking music. They are seen instead on a computer screen, broadcasting name after name after name of priests who were quickly and covertly moved to neighboring parishes or placed on “extended sick leave.”
As in any standard horror, the beast pops up one last time, just after we are lead to believe it is down for the count and dead. Spotlight‘s monster rears its ugly head in the closing credits in an unnerving form: a seemingly endless list of additional cities (worldwide) that have since been unmasked as havens for pedophile clergy.
Contrary to fundamentalist tenets, faith is not abstract, unequivocal belief in some kind of faceless, throned deity pronouncing eternally unchanging doctrine. Rather, faith is locating optimism through the worst circumstances, traumas, and origins. Despite the intensity of its subject matter, the Spotlight beams optimistically. We can indeed be thankful that opaque trust in religious institutions, leadership, and the status quo belong to a different age. Change is not only inevitable, but essential. It is belief in an unchanging God and Church that is anathema. With the ever-burgeoning disclosures that horrific abuse is not confined to a single entity, denomination or demographic, our Thanksgiving is found on a plate that can, with effort, be transparent.