January 24, 2016
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one, a point proved, beyond all doubt by director Tom McCarthy in the excellent Spotlight. Looking at how the Catholic Church covered up and facilitated the actions of Paedophile priests in Boston, while hot-shot lawyers profited off of those same actions, it’s a well deserved ode to the journalistic profession, so often portrayed in a venal hue on the silver screen.
A couple of outsiders sniff out the culpability of an entire city- poisoned, at the tit, by the faith that binds them, in this shocking stoic drama that exposes the way evil nestles in as normality in a society curdled by the catechism.
Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is a Jewish, baseball-hating blow-in, freshly plucked from Florida to edit the Boston Globe (swiping the position right out from under the nose of a hometown boy), switching his new fiefdom’s international focus to one more concerned with local issues.
A column he reads in the paper he now commands, alerts him to the derided claims of a local attorney- Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) –a man, crucially, of Armenian descent, about sexual abuse carried out by a local priest, and covered up by his superiors.
Baron smells a story…and wonders why no one else has attempted joining the dots. And so he sets the crack Spotlight team on the case, to painstakingly go back over past reports in the paper- and past claims from so called cranks. To do the math, basically, that they had been so negligent with up to that point.
Quickly one priest becomes 13, 13 becomes 87, and the church becomes the entire city. Cops, colleges- the Boston Globe itself, they all turned a blind eye to the evil that men do when sheathed in the cloth, and that acceptance is ingrained in the institutions that control ‘Beantown’- as Boston is known.
Judges, lawyers, charities and schools all seem reticent to believe that it can be more than a few bad apples at work. They bristle and bruise as their own accountability butterflies out of their faith, and -as the revelations rain down; the reporters and their superiors face up to the ethical and corporate dilemmas that shape the media world.
It’s a love story, a paean to methodology, to locality and the art of making a detailed, social-minded drama the likes that has been sorely missed since Pakula’s paranoid, 70s heyday. It places it’s trust in the facts, and lets the audience derive their pleasure from that, putting professional drama ahead of personal quandaries.
But, it must be said, McCarthy’s deliberate decision to put the focus where he does, while admirable, is also one of the films few failings. While the revelations disturb and shift your keister to the seat’s edge, the story lacks a certain amount of tension. The process should be front and centre, but by keeping the personal lives of the journalists as such an after thought, you lose the sense of how their work was not only important, but also brave.
Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) marriage falls apart because of the demands of the job. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is making her name tearing down an institution that means everything to her grandmother. Matty Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) contrasts his duty to the greater good with his duty to the children who are at that very moment in harms way, because they are sitting on the story.
Most interesting of all is Ben Bradlee Jr., played by Mad Men’s John Slattery, who seems conflicted by what the revelations mean for his faith, while also living up to the legacy of his father, the executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate Scandal.
None of this is given more than a passing glance, a perfunctory nod, which means we get very little feeling for the people of the city of Boston, itself a powerful presence in this movie.
It’s a fault, and not a minor one, but Spotlight is still a riveting, engrossing, emotional bitchslap, that highlights the banality of evil, yes, but also, it’s human face.
It’s short on the outbursts, the pontificating and the creeping instability that its forefathers implanted as the tropes of the genre.And none of the performers stand out, in a tight, un-showy ensemble that pluck the salient facts of the case out and hold them up to the audience, in a way that drives the story on but never feels like exposition.
It makes the case for a free press like no other recent televisual or motion picture counterpart, the need for good men and women to strip away at a story until they hit the bones of the matter.