The beating heart of Spotlight‘s tragedy is one that will ring home to anyone familiar with Irish history. The original story, which ran in January 2002, was the tearing open of a systematic wound in which Catholic priests had both abused and knowingly covered up the abuse of children across the city of Boston. A direct attack on the systems that allowed this abuse to happen, the initial story by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team had itself snowballed from one priest into some 83, with hundred of victims coming forward after hitting print. The team had engaged in old school journalism for weeks and months in order to construct the story and Tom McCarthy‘s film is an investigative tome that honors their work with fervent honesty to the journalistic process at its finest.
What began as a column by one Eileen McNamara, newly appointed Boston Globe editor Marty Baron decided to poke further into the idea that Boston’s Catholic climate was hiding a large sex scandal. Played by Liev Schreiber, Baron’s dry intensity towards the idea provides a fervent backbone for the ensuing developments – raised Jewish and new to Boston, his inert longing for the truth succeeded any possible fear he may have had for the Catholic way of life in the city. Not that he wasn’t warned or told this would be difficult, Baron remained inert in the idea that Spotlight’s target was the system and not just any one priest or set of victims’ story.
The team, Michael Rezendes, Walter Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll, then set out knocking and doors and exploring old files that would rock their city and their own belief to the core. Robinson, portrayed by Michael Keaton, talks early on in the film about working right across from his high school and jokes about how hard it is to get away. And in reality, he wasn’t kidding. Brian d’Arcy James‘ Matt Carroll ends up discovering one of the alleged abusers lives in his neighbourhood and as the story comes together, so do the horrors of uncovering a trail of raw abuse like this.
It’s impossible to watch Spotlight and not ponder our own Irish history of lost youth and disgraced priests. Ireland is still a nation cancerous with “that’s just how it is” mentality and protection of old religious values that demean us and discourage meaningful growth. For every step forward we make, it’s marred in stories of mass baby graves from nun-run orphanages and yet more adults coming forward to finally tell the priest that raped them that they’re not afraid any more. And it’s easy to be demoralized and get frustrated that the whole situation is hopeless. As Mark Ruffalo‘s Michael Rezendes’ exclaims during a cornerstone monologue, “this is B***SH*T!” when told they weren’t going to run the piece early to expose the few priests they had gained proof against. I can’t argue with him on that, nor can I argue with Sacha Pfeiffer, in a satisfyingly somber turn from Rachel McAdams, having to reschedule interviews with victims for the umpteenth time. The Spotlight exposé happened to run over the 9/11 attacks and so the team were needed elsewhere. Tom McCathy and Josh Singer‘s screenplay weighs down the difficult job of dealing with life day-to-day while fighting the good fight. We all dream of being that hero against the evils of the system, but we also need to live in the meantime.
Thankfully, Spotlight is a film about validating the efforts of those that take the stand. Journalism can often be easily maligned, but when the process works, great work can be done and contained in the walls of these two hours, great work is done. John Slattery and Stanely Tucci round out an ensemble cast where everyone is trying to do the right thing, the right way. Moreover, McCarthy resists bathing the film in an easily obtained neo-noir tone or melodrama; the pace is slightly slow, but such is the process it depicts. We’re not watching cops hone in on a church with an ending hallmarked for a shoot-out, we’re watching a team of people who work to expose evil and do good and this is a movie all about doing those two things. No more, no less and it’s all the more important and impressive a text for it.
Spotlight is in cinemas now.