Friday, February 19, 2016
Separation of Church and Fifth Estate: Spotlight Review
They all knew.
The scandal of child abuse by Catholic priests in the United States would not have come to light if not for a group of journalists determined to get at the truth. Spotlight, the film based on the Boston Globe investigation of the Church's handling of pedophile priests, is sparse, direct, and straightforward. It is a sharp film that does not sensationalize the issue and which gives an intelligent version of the events as they occurred.
The new Boston Globe editor, Marty Baron (Liev Shrieber) is not a native Bostonian or a Catholic, two things that make him stand out in a community where the Church is a powerful entity. He looks at what all the various departments are doing, and one story catches his eye: that of a lawyer who says that Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Catholic Church, knew that disgraced priest Father John Geoghan was abusing children and did nothing about it. Despite misgivings and a thinly veiled hostility to the outsider, Baron instructs the Spotlight team (the in-house investigative reporting team known to spend months on one story) to look into the case. One Spotlight member, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) goes to that lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to see if he will cooperate, up to letting them interview survivors. The Spotlight head, Walter Robinson, better known as Robby (Michael Keaton), along with Spotlight member Sasha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) work another angle, looking into how outside lawyers helped keep things hush-hush. The final Spotlight member, Matt Carroll (Michael D'Arcy James), also investigates the case.
As the investigation goes on, the Spotlight team puts various pieces together. The survivors tell their stories, and the head of a survivor's support group, Phil Saviano (Neil Huff) who had gone to the Globe years before but essentially dismissed as an angry man with an ax to grind, helps point them in the right direction. Soon, Spotlight starts seeing a particularly ugly pattern: priest who were put on 'sick leave' or were 'unassigned' were actually the same ones being moved around or sent to 'treatment centers', and more perniciously, the same ones whom survivors named as abusers. The Catholic Church, in order to protect itself, would hear reports of sexually abusive priests (who would go after boys and girls), tell the families this was just a 'bad apple' and rather than dismiss them or go to the police, simply take them out of circulation for a while and put them in another parish, where the perverts would strike again. This shady shifting had been going on for decades, and not only did the Church know, but so did the police, the attorneys, and even the newspapers (the Globe publishing reports but not following up or making the connections).
After a lot of hurdles, reluctance to take on the Church, and September 11th drawing attention away from this story, the Spotlight team, with the approval of both Baron and editor Ben Bradee, Jr. (John Slattery), finally publish the first of a series of articles on the Catholic Church in Boston knowing about the pedophile priests and not only not doing anything about it, but being complicit in the cover-up and ongoing abuse. The Globe expects massive pushback from the Catholic community in Boston, but instead is astonished to be flooded with calls to the Spotlight tip-line for those who have information on the case.
What makes Spotlight such a good film is director Tom McCarthy's decision to focus squarely on the story in a deliberately paced and unflashy manner. Comparisons to All the President's Men are warranted, as both films do not delve into other matters outside the workplace. You had little hints about the character's private lives: Sasha taking her Nana to church, ending that part with Nana asking for a glass of water while reading the Globe story, her granddaughter visibly nervous about her reaction, Rezendes' potentially failing marriage. However, those things played on the sidelines and never interrupted the flow of the story.
Also, there is not a big dramatic moment where everyone realizes everything. Instead, the story builds on itself, each piece of the puzzle being put together and things starting to come to them piecemeal. Even when they get shocking news (such as when Sasha finds one of the abusive priests, who bizarrely keeps repeating that he never got any pleasure out of it and that he never raped any boy because HE had been raped and 'knows the difference'), there is no big dramatic performance or overwhelming music to give us the emotional cues.
As a side note, there is a score by Howard Shore, but this was piano-based, in keeping with the minimalist nature of the film, which was both a good score and a good decision by director/co-writer McCarthy (writing with Josh Singer).
McCarthy got great performances out of a great cast. McAdams' Sasha is not a crusader, but a pound-paving reporter who sees her job and does it, while showing the appropriate compassion to one of the adult survivors (a man who as a boy knew he was gay and who was taken advantage of due to that by a priest). Keaton is solid as Robbie, who realizes too late he too had a piece at least a decade earlier but did not do a folo.
Another side note: one of the great things about Spotlight is that people can use in-house lingo like 'folo' (short for "follow-up") or "Lake Street" (a euphemism for the Catholic Church) without getting lost or not understanding what's being said.
Even Schriber, whom I'm seeing as the wooden actor my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who is very much alive), lets his usual stiff manner work on his behalf as the main editor who sees things more clearly as the outsider than the natives do.
Ruffalo is good though when he becomes insistent that they run the story sooner than Robbie or Bradlee want I thought that was a trifle too much. I also thought the scene where we hear children sing Silent Night while they continue getting interviews and evidence was also a trifle much, a bit of gilding the lily. I get the connection between innocent children singing about silence and the birth of the Savior as this group digs into the sins of the Mother Church, but a little symbolism goes a long way. Too much of it...not so much.
Spotlight is an incredibly sharp and intelligent film about the evils an entity can do, and about how the willing silence of the community kept it going. It speaks to how diligence and dogged tenacity get the job done. It is about how important the press and newspapers in particular still are. The Fourth Estate continues to be a vital force, a necessary force, and Spotlight does it immense credit.
Yes, they all knew, but when truth was spoken, the truth set them free.
2016 Best Picture: Moonlight