Spotlight opens at a police station circa 1976 where representatives of the Church, in conjunction with an Assistant DA, are participating in hushing up one such incident.
“I guess the Father was ‘helping out’”, a stocky old-timer wryly comments to a redheaded rookie as a likely sex offender is ushered into the back of a snow-frosted black sedan and away from prosecution. It’s a scene whose cinematography and corruption would feel equally at home in Black Mass.
As a drama about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, Tom McCarthy’s latest has a lot to do with second chances. For those involved in the story, namely the titular investigative at the Boston Globe, it’s a second chance to take on an injustice that had gone undiscussed for more than a quarter of a century.
For McCarthy it’s also a chance to return to a grand modern theme — the decline of print journalism — that the fifth season of The Wire, in which he appeared as journo-fabulist Scott Templeton, arguably shortchanged in favor of personal axe-grinding on the part of show-runner David Simon.
While the cover-up would seem to have been something of an open secret for many years, it wasn’t until the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, wonderfully understated in mutton-chops and wire-frame specs) in 2001 that the Globe deigned to really look into the allegations. A New York Jew with no skin in the game, so to speak, the soft-spoken Baron seizes upon a small column as catalyst for an in-depth Spotlight investigation. Against an organization that thinks in centuries, though, it’s understandably an uphill struggle.
Led by the shrewd, craggy veteran, Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton in a small well-crafted character study), the team is comprised of well-meaning pain-in-the-ass Michael Rezendes (a twitchy, impassioned Mark Ruffalo in), the tireless Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); and, off to one side, the skeptical, even oppositional supervisor Ben Bradlee (John Slattery).
All lapsed Catholics to one degree or another, they’ve spent their lives in close proximity to the Church and its representatives. but even they aren’t prepared for the level of deliberate blindness they must confront.
This can be seen in the guise of two lawyers, litigators to be precise: the amiable Eric MacLeish (an engagingly slimy Billy Crudup), who seems to have made negotiating under-the-table settlements with the Church into something of a cottage industry, and would-be ally Mitchell Garabedian (an intense, cagey Stanley Tucci), who refuses to even let them take notes. In a city where the judge might well inquire what parish you belong to, he has every reason to be paranoid.
Within the broader scope of these systemic abuses, Spotlight also singles out heart-rending individual stories. There’s the hard-knocks former Southie kid, shortly to become father, who was abused when at his most vulnerable, and a bashful gay man who relates how a priest convinced him to play strip poker — “Of course I lost”, he says with a sad little smile.
These are the stories that, up until the Boston Globe’s investigation, were largely ignored. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”, says Garabedian, and the paper bares some culpability in this.
Ruffalo, meanwhile, continues to prove himself perhaps the most dependable character actor of his generation: Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right, Shutter Island, Foxcatcher, Infinitely Polar Bear. Twitchy and impassioned, and again sporting an unflattering barnet, nobody does relatably tortured humanity quite like him.
One of Spotlight’s most emotionally raw moments comes when Rezendes, angry and frustrated, reveals the hope he had held of eventually returning to the Church — a reminder that, for all its culpability and wrongdoing, of the comfort and security the institution represents to many people.
With its crisp yet faded cinematography from Masanobu “Masa” Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, Warrior), Howard Score’s solemn piano score, and masterful performances, Spotlight deftly handles complex moral and social issues.
The note that Carroll sticks on the fridge — a warning to his kids about the pedophile down the street — over time gets buried beneath layers of pictures, menus, shopping lists; all the detritus of everyday life. As images go, it’s a sober, considered one.
There is something inherently dramatic about the search for The Truth, especially when it goes hand-in-hand with important real-world issues, and so a lot of great cinema has leaped from the wellspring of investigative journalism (the film Truth ironically not being one of them).
The best of the genre manage to balance the scope and complexity of the case – case and point: All the President’s Men’s handling of the Watergate scandal in – with the more basic human element. Spotlight is just such a film.