US (2015) Dir. Tom McCarthy
They say God moves in mysterious ways when a certain sticky situation is either avoided or resolved in a timely manner but sometimes even the Almighty is unable to save the more pernicious members of his flock. Then again perhaps even He would turn his back on the villains in this tale.
In 2001 the newly appointed editor of the Boston Globe newspaper Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) asks Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of the paper’s independent investigation unit Spotlight to look into the allegations made by lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) that Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) knew one of his priests, Father John Geoghan, had been abusing children but took no action.
Spotlight journalist Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) gets an off the record lead from Garabedian about how Cardinal Law would move Geoghan to another parish to avoid trouble although this didn’t stop him from reoffending. Rezendes, along with Robby, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James) discover the abuse extends beyond just one priest in a history of cover-ups that has lasted over three decades.
Arguably the most shocking thing about the winner of the 2016 Best Film Oscar is that it is based on real events, but at the same time, as this expose beget a global investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, it is not so surprising. This doesn’t make learning how corrupt the supposed moral high ground of the church is any more palatable.
While it is natural and easy to take a cynical approach to the “true story” credentials of the story, its biggest strength is in how it avoids the temptation to be sensationalist and sticks to the facts, which, as we learns in one of the major plot points, are a matter of public records.
The investigation kicks off with Baron asking for incriminating documents to be made public which meant effectively suing the church, something he was both ridiculed for yet applauded for his boldness. While this motion is underway the Spotlight team begin digging on Geoghan and learn that he was not alone in being shifted around from town to town.
Initially their research and interviews with survivors of church abuse, as well as off the record chats with a lawyer Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) yields the news that 13 priests have been subject to protection by Cardinal Law for indecent behaviour towards minors. But it gets worse when a psychotherapist studying the church Richard Sipe (Richard Jenkins) shares his findings which put the number of pervert priests at 90.
Director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s script keeps its focus on the procedural break down of the dogged journalistic investigation of the Spotlight team. There is no exploitation of the victims, no depictions of the abuse and no demonising of the church either. It would have been too easy to have a central theologian antagonist calling the shots and quite ruinous to the credibility of the film too.
With the tabloid press leaving itself open to widespread scorn for false reporting, time wasting tawdry sensationalism and insensitive hate mongering, it is hugely refreshing to see the press actually working on a story of national – and international public interest and of huge societal import. The Spotlight team – all real people represented here – worked tirelessly in the pursuit of the truth, encountering many hurdles.
The story unravels like a densely plotted crime thriller, with a new revelation to bring them closer to the truth being the reward for conquering a particularly difficult obstacle, while an off-hand remark or simple name can also bear fruit. Rezendes does most of the footwork, racing from venue to venue to secure access to important documents first, while his colleagues cover the home territory.
Despite its fact based origins the story is still subject to some dramatisation but nothing too excessive or unnecessarily incongruous to appeal to those with short attention spans. To that end the personal effects the story has on the team is explored with subtle strokes making them more meaningful – Sacha’s devout grandmother, Matt having to keep the news one shamed priest lives locally, or Robby jeopardising old friendships for answers.
If this sounds dull and tedious, it isn’t. Granted, it is a heavily verbal film but everything is relevant and covers much more ground than the show-not-tell approach could. The two hours fly by and it is not difficult at all to be hooked from the intrigue of how and when the case will finally be blown open. The group dynamic may mean there is no singular protagonist to root for, the real hero is the truth itself.
Not all the names in the ensemble cast will be familiar to everyone but the four main players all gel creating a believable cohesive unit within a larger operation that allows it to be left to their own devices. Michael Keaton as Robby was the cool headed but determined leader to counter Mark Ruffalo’s passionate Rezendes.
Sacha may seem like a token female but her role was just as vital as others, preventing Rachel McAdams didn’t shrink into the background or ask dumb questions to make the men look better. The only annoying character for this writer was Marty Baron, who Liev Schreiber portrayed with a little too much ambiguity as to his true intentions while mumbling his lines.
The presentation and Tom McCarthy’s direction is very modest and restrained for such a big prestige movie but any signs of ostentation or frippery with the photography would have ruined what a compelling and worthwhile film through the story and performances alone.
It is when Hollywood foregoes the bombast of CGI excess or exoteric blandness to make a film with such an important story as Spotlight that we are truly rewarded. Somehow it feels just a little too light for the Best Film Oscar compared to some of its competitors but a highly recommended film nonetheless.