THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to molest one, too.”
That line is one of the most powerful in Spotlight, a dramatization of how a group of Boston reporters blew the lid off the Catholic Church's shameful coverup of pedophiles within their ranks. The film is not just an indictment of the priests and the Church; it's an indictment of a mindset that will be familiar to anyone who was raised Catholic. The Church is holy. The Church must be protected. You cannot do anything to make the Church look bad. Regardless of your religion, the movie will make you brim over with anger, while simultaneously earning your involvement with its portrayal of fearless journalism. The obvious comparison is to All the President's Men, not just because both are about reporters, but because Spotlight is almost as good as Alan J. Pakula's 1976 classic.
Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the leader of the Boston Globe's “Spotlight” department. He and his staff – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) – specialize in deep investigative reporting. The paper's new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), requests that the team follow up on a local priest who settled a child abuse allegation. They do, and soon open up a can of worms. Working their contacts, they discover a pattern of priests abusing kids, then being shipped off to different parishes when caught. Robby and the paper's deputy managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), have to ensure the story is corroborated as tightly as possible, especially when it becomes clear that the scandal extends all the way to top Boston Diocese officials.
Spotlight is a great movie about journalism because it captures the effect of surprise. Robby and his team begin to assemble details and, with each piece clicking into place, find themselves stunned at every new implication. The film shows how this triggers their desire to learn more, to go a little further, to ask more probing questions. That unrelenting desire to get to the bottom of things is what makes a great reporter. Spotlight puts us in the team's collective head space as they struggle to wrap their minds around the enormity of the issue, then determine the best way to proceed with the information they've uncovered. So often, people in movies seem to be passive. They do things because it's what the story requires them to. In contrast, the reporters here are actively invested in what they're doing, and the film becomes something of a character study of individuals who are driven to reveal things that are hidden.
The actors, who are uniformly outstanding, craft similarities and differences among the characters they portray. All exude a sense of doggedness, but they modify things a bit when it comes to the specifics. Rezendes, for example, is a bulldog, unafraid to charge right in on a source. Sacha, meanwhile, takes a more empathetic approach in getting people to open up. And Robby is a “big picture” guy, with enough experience to know when and how to tighten the screws, particularly when someone has important information but doesn't want to talk. (His showdown with a complicit attorney, played by Billy Crudup, is one of the movie's high points.) The result is a superb depiction of teamwork. Spotlight focuses on how the team members compliment each other in their shared quest for answers.
What the real-life Spotlight team discovered was that the problem went beyond the priests, and even beyond the Diocese. They found out the issue was far more systemic than that. Many people in Boston knew – or at least suspected – what was going on, yet said nothing because of the ingrained message that the Catholic Church is infallible. As one of the abuse victims says when asked why he didn't report the priest who molested him, “How do you say no to God?” Director Tom McCarthy (Win Win) and co-writer Josh Singer take pains to show the machinations behind any sex abuse scandal, specifically the way pedophiles often hide in plain sight and the way people willingly look the other direction when faced with something suspicious that they don't want to acknowledge as real.
Spotlight, like its protagonists, seeks to reveal truth. More than just focusing on the breaking of a news story, it examines society's need to have people like Robby's team to crusade for the facts. It also seeks to call out the institutional mindset that allows immoral things to happen. The film is riveting from its first second to its last. With a smart script, perfectly paced direction, and superb acting, this is a work that manages to be as entertaining as it is important.
( out of four)
Spotlight is rated R for some language including sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
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