Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Premise: A dramatization of the Boston Globe’s investigation of child abuse by priests in the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church.
What Works: Spotlight is a movie about characters operating in a very specific place and the filmmakers do an excellent job of creating a sense of their setting. The story takes place in Boston, a city that has a very particular culture and Catholicism is an important aspect of that culture. The design of the production and the details of the plot and the people give Spotlight a lot of regional character. Besides creating a believable context for the story, that regional aspect is also important to understanding why this investigation was so important to the community. Spotlight is a procedural and the movie takes the audience through the process of collecting the evidence and assembling the story in a way that is always involving. The nature of the story requires that the newspaper team do a massive investigation but they also have to keep that investigation quiet and so the movie shares some aspects of a spy thriller. In the process of the Globe’s investigation, two themes emerge. The first is the way that an ingrained institution protects itself and is protected by the rest of the community. This is where the Boston location is so important. Throughout the film, the reporters are advised to let the matter go because of the good that the Church does in the community. With so many pedophilic priests identified in the investigation and with each having so many more victims, the film is a portrait of the way a community will protect or ignore a bedrock institution even when it’s plainly obvious that the members of that institution have done something horrible. The second theme that emerges in Spotlight is the way that the revelations of abuse and especially the cover up by the Church hierarchy impact the spiritual wellbeing of the investigators and later the average churchgoer. This comes through in the performances of the actors playing members of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, including Michael Keaton as Walter Robinson, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll. These reporters are native Bostonians but over the course of the investigation they begin to see their community in a new and terrifying light. Also notable is the performance of Liev Schrieber as Boston Globe editor Marty Baron. It’s a low key performance but one that is careful and reveals a lot through subtle gestures.
What Doesn’t: Throughout the film, the reporters keep their investigation quiet because they fear repercussions from the Church. The trouble is that the supposed punitive power of the Catholic Church is never substantiated on screen. For that matter, the Church’s side of this issue isn’t addressed at all. That’s not because of some scurrilous agenda on the filmmaker’s part; the story unfolds through the eyes of the reporters, putting commentary by Church leaders outside the narrative’s purview, and when asked for input before publication the Boston Archdiocese refused to participate in the story. But the filmmaker’s approach to this story limits the degree to which Spotlight can actually illuminate the issue. The fact is that the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse problems are well known and have been presented before in dramatic films like Doubt and Our Fathers and documentaries like Deliver Us from Evil and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Spotlight is a procedural and it makes that procedure compelling but it isn’t especially revelatory.
Bottom Line: Spotlight is a very good journalism drama. The movie has terrific performances and the story is as good a thriller as any spy film. Those who are familiar with the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, even perfunctorily, aren’t going to find much new here but the filmmakers dramatize it well.
Episode: #573 (December 13, 2015)