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Review: Our Fathers (2005)

Our Fathers (2005)

Directed by: Dan Curtis

Premise: A dramatization of the nonfiction book by David France. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Ted Danson) puts together a lawsuit against the Boston Archdiocese over the abuse of children by priests and the cover up by church officials.

What Works: Our Fathers is an ambitious attempt to capture the breadth of the Catholic child abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese that was exposed by the Boston Globe in 2002. To give a sense of the movie’s scale, the events dramatized in the 2015 movie Spotlight take place within the first forty minutes of Our Fathers and the picture delves into the aftermath of the Globe’s revelations and what they meant for the church and the community. Our Fathers is primarily the story of two people: attorney Mitchell Garabedian, played by Ted Danson, and Cardinal Bernard Law, played by Christopher Plummer. Garabedian is portrayed as an ambitious, small time attorney making a name for himself by taking on the Church and using his legal know-how to outflank the imposing opposition of the Catholic Church. The movie relies on some of the standard legal drama scenarios as seen in And Justice for All and Erin Brockovich but it does them well and actor Ted Danson makes the audience believe in the righteousness of the cause. The other portion of Our Fathers focuses on Cardinal Law, who oversaw the Boston Archdiocese during the controversy. Therein lies one of the most surprising and exceptional aspects of Our Fathers; the filmmakers construct a nuanced portrait of the Church’s reaction to the abuse and a shockingly empathetic portrait of Cardinal Law. The cardinal comes across not as a moustache twirling villain but as a human being who made terrible mistakes and is now grappling with the consequences. There is also a great deal of complexity among the other Catholic characters, namely Father Dominic Spagnolia, played by Brian Dennehy, who uses the pulpit to speak out against the mistakes and corruption in his own organization. The nuance and complexity of Our Fathers allows the moviemakers to keep touch with the human tragedy of these events rather than turn the picture into a sanctimonious screed.

What Doesn’t: Our Fathers was made for television, originally airing on the Showtime network in 2005, and the picture frequently looks like a television production rather than a feature film. It has the scale of a television program and in some cases it uses cinematic techniques that were dated even in 2005. This is especially notable in the flashbacks to moments of abuse. These sequences are handled tastefully but they sometimes play a little hokey with the actors and the material treading toward melodrama. The limits of the production are also evident in the sets which look like repurposed courtrooms and offices from Law and Order. The generic production design is indicative of a key shortcoming of Our Fathers; it doesn’t have a strong sense of place. There aren’t many signature Boston visuals and the accents of the cast are irregular. Regarding the subject matter, the filmmakers take care to provide a nuanced portrait of the Boston abuse scandal but they may be too forgiving of Cardinal Law and his allies. The film gives the audience a sense of what Law was thinking and how his misunderstanding of criminal pathology guided his judgement but does that matter? Whether by honest mistake or criminal conspiracy, many more children were abused because of Law’s actions. An evenly balanced portrait is not necessarily the same as a fair and accurate one. The filmmakers of Our Fathers go out of their way to avoid being labeled anti-Catholic bigots but in the process they take some of the edge out of the material.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks, featurette, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Our Fathers is certainly worth a look by those interested in the clergy abuse scandal. It’s very much a television movie but it’s well done and provides a complex portrait of a complicated event.

Episode: #573 (December 13, 2015)