Chief Film Critic @JustinCChang
It’s not often that a director manages to follow his worst film with his best, but even if he weren’t rebounding from “The Cobbler,” Tom McCarthy would have a considerable achievement on his hands with “Spotlight,” a superbly controlled and engrossingly detailed account of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread pedophilia scandals and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church. Very much in the “All the President’s Men”/“Zodiac” mold of slow-building, quietly gripping journalistic procedurals, this measured and meticulous ensemble drama sifts through a daunting pile of evidence to expose not just the Church’s horrific cycles of abuse and concealment, but also its uniquely privileged position in a society that failed its victims at myriad personal, spiritual and institutional levels. The result may be more sobering and scrupulous than it is cathartic or revelatory, but with its strong narrative drive and fine cast, “Spotlight” should receive more than a fair hearing with smarthouse audiences worldwide.
As with so many movies drawn from controversial real-life events, any attempt at damage control by the organization under scrutiny could merely wind up boosting the film’s commercial and cultural profile when Open Road releases it Nov. 6 Stateside. As such, Catholic officials might be disinclined to take up arms against “Spotlight” as vocally as they did with “Philomena” (2013), which invited legitimate criticism with its cartoonishly villainous Irish nuns and other dramatic liberties. McCarthy’s picture is all the more authoritative for its comparative restraint: Perhaps realizing the number of different ways they could have tackled a narrative of this density, the director and his co-writer, Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”), have shrewdly limited themselves to the journalists’ perspective, ensuring that everything we learn about the scandal comes to us strictly through the Globe’s eyes and ears.
There are no triumphant, lip-smacking confrontations here, no ghoulish rape flashbacks or sensationalistic cutaways to a sinister clerical conspiracy behind closed doors. There is only the slow and steady gathering of information, the painstaking corroboration of hunches and leads, followed by a sort of slow-dawning horror as the sheer scale of the epidemic comes into focus. When a reporter notes that he’d love to see the looks on the faces of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) and other Boston Archdiocese officials, it’s a measure of the film’s rigor that it refuses to oblige.
The sole exception to this ground rule is the prologue, set on a wintry 1976 night at a Boston police station, where a priest named Father John Geoghan is briefly held and then quietly released into the hands of the Archdiocese. Twenty-seven years later, in July 2001, the horrific consequences of that incident have been brought to light, with allegations that the now-defrocked Geoghan molested more than 80 young boys during his time in the priesthood. The Globe runs a few stories but little follow-up, until newly hired top editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who’s determined to bring a new urgency to the newspaper’s coverage and boost its local impact, turns the beat over to Spotlight, a four-person investigative team led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).
The search proceeds slowly but on multiple fronts. Hard-headed reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) works doggedly to secure the cooperation of Mitchell Garabedian (a spry Stanley Tucci), the notoriously larger-than-life lawyer who’s representing 86 plaintiffs in the Geoghan case, and also to unseal sensitive documents that the Church has successfully buried until now. Another Spotlight writer, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), digs into abuse claims that have been filed against other local priests, interviewing victims and cornering top attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup, slick), whose own attempts to hold the Church to account have done little to keep them from, in Robinson’s words, “turning child abuse into a cottage industry.”
That thread is pursued still further by reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who discovers an ingenious method of tracing those pedophile priests whose ongoing offenses were not only known but actively enabled by the Archdiocese — usually by sending them to treatment centers before reassigning them to new parishes, where they were free to prey upon children anew. Working with ace d.p. Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy directs in a clean, fluid style as he traces the story from the Boston Globe newsroom (the camera often following staffers through the corridors in lengthy tracking shots) to the city’s low-income margins, where priests reliably went after the most vulnerable kids they could find.
As the investigation grinds on for months, with Howard Shore’s score busily marking the passage of time in the background, Robinson and his team realize their job is not just to expose “a few bad apples” (at least 87 priests in the Boston area may be offenders, enough to qualify as a genuine psychiatric phenomenon), but also to prove the existence of a systemic cover-up at the highest levels of Church — one that goes beyond Cardinal Law and extends into the very heart of the Vatican itself. The question becomes not just what to publish but when to publish, as the reporters must figure out how to write the most commanding piece they can before they’re scooped by the competition — or before word leaks back to the Church itself, which is well equipped to fight a public-relations war, especially in Boston.
Even without the onscreen presence of Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father famously steered the Washington Post through Watergate, “All the President’s Men” would be the obvious touchstone here. Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, “Spotlight” is a magnificently nerdy process movie — a tour de force of filing-cabinet cinema, made with absolute assurance that we’ll be held by scene after scene of people talking, taking notes, following tips, hounding sources, poring over records, filling out spreadsheets, and having one door after another slammed in their faces. When the Spotlight investigation is temporarily halted in the wake of 9/11, we’re reminded that the film is also a period piece, set during a time when print journalism had not yet entered its death throes. Like the American remake of “State of Play” (in which McAdams also played a journalist), McCarthy’s film includes a loving montage of a printing press, busily churning out the next morning’s edition — a valedictory sequence that may move old-school journalists in the audience to tears.
The story’s newsgathering focus ultimately creates a level of distance from its subject that works both for the film and against it. As information-system dramas go, “Spotlight” doesn’t have the haunting thematic layers of “Zodiac,” and it never summons the emotional force of the 1991 miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent,” still the most devastating docudrama ever made about child abuse within the Catholic Church. Many of the victims depicted here — like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), who movingly recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Paul Shanley — function in a mostly expository manner, offering up vital but fleeting insights into the psychology of the abusers and the abused, but without taking pride of place in their own story.
Where the film proves extraordinarily perceptive is in its sense of how inextricably the Church has woven itself into the very fabric of Boston life, and how it concealed its corruption for so long by exerting pressure and influence on the city’s legal, political and journalistic institutions. Given the blurrier-than-usual separation of church and state, and the fact that the newspaper’s own readership includes a high percentage of Irish Catholics, it’s no surprise that it falls to an outsider like Baron — a Florida native and the first Jewish editor to take the helm at the Globe — to play hardball with the Archdiocese. If there’s anything that keeps “Spotlight” from devolving into a simplistic heroic-crusaders movie, it’s the filmmakers’ refusal to let the Globe itself off the hook, pointing out the numerous times the paper’s leaders glossed over reports of abuse that landed on their doorstep.
As he demonstrated in films like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” McCarthy has always had a nicely understated touch with actors, and his ensemble here is a model of low-key excellence. The heftiest roles go to Keaton, who presents Robinson as a flawed but strong, soul-searching leader, and Ruffalo, whose passionately committed Rezendes gets to display the most energy and emotional range (including one of the film’s few excessively histrionic moments). McAdams imbues Pfeiffer with sensitivity and grit, while D’Arcy James brings understated shadings to Carroll, a hard-working family man who’s alarmed to learn that a suspected perpetrator is living in his neighborhood.
Slattery, Tucci and Schreiber all shine in small yet vital roles, while the cast also includes sharp work by Jamey Sheridan and Paul Guilfoyle as two Church-connected friends who try to talk Robinson down from his publish-or-parish stance. We recognize them immediately — and perhaps a bit of ourselves — as members of a great swath of decent yet compromised humanity, the proverbial good men who do nothing and allow evil to flourish.
Dir. Tom McCarthy, US. 2015. 128mins
A polished, engrossing procedural, Spotlight offers plenty of old-fashioned pleasures — chiefly, the sight of smart, scrappy muckraking journalists stopping at nothing to uncover systematic corruption. With strands of All The President’s Men unmistakably embedded in its DNA, this real-life drama chronicles how, in 2001, a handful of Boston Globe reporters exposed a widespread cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Although director and co-writer Tom McCarthy can fall victim to prestige-picture preciousness and narrative conventionality, Spotlight goes a long way on the strength of superior acting and a crackling tale.
Playing the Venice and Toronto film festivals before hitting US theaters on November 6, Spotlight hopes to court awards-season favour with a cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber. Audience awareness of the Church’s sexual-assault crisis could draw discriminating adult viewers, and strong reviews will only help build interest in a journalistic exposé that may not offer many visceral thrills but should satisfy those looking for grownup entertainment.
Taking place over the course of about six months, the film illuminates the work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team — editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) and his reporters Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — who can take up to a year digging deep into investigative pieces for the paper. When their new editor Marty Baron (Schreiber) becomes interested in allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston’s archbishop, shielded priests who raped young parishioners, Spotlight starts tracking down victims and anyone else who has evidence of the decades-long wrongdoing.
Much like other fact-based films such as All The President’s Men or The Insider, Spotlight derives much of its low-boil intensity from the stripped-down recounting of how these journalists went about revealing the cover-up. Though there is some attempt to fill in these characters’ personal lives, McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) adopts a just-the-facts-ma’am tone, mostly eschewing huge dramatic moments to let the reporters’ industrious, unglamorous work take centre stage. And because Spotlight is set at a time before the Internet was ubiquitous, that means a lot of face-to-face interviews, combing through court archives and other laborious investigative work that, as filmed by McCarthy and edited by Tom McArdle, has a pleasing, compelling rigour to it.
The filmmaker is aided immensely by a cast topped by Ruffalo, who plays Rezendes with all the tenacity and charm of a pit bull. He isn’t much fun to be around — even his wife seems to have abandoned him — but Rezendes comes across as Spotlight’s unapologetically hardnosed hero, a relentless investigative journalist who attacks his job with the avenging-angel fury of a man who cannot abide corruption and hypocrisy.
Ruffalo’s two main costars, McAdams and Keaton, are both strong as well, playing veteran journalists whose whole lives appear to be their work. In the past, McAdams has been wobbly in dramatic roles, but she has the right tenor for Pfeiffer, who may be the youngest of the Spotlight team but doesn’t shrink from the challenges of confronting difficult interview subjects. And although Keaton’s character is somewhat burdened by a guilty secret, the Oscar-nominated actor exudes a weary, wise tone that makes it obvious why Robinson’s coworkers respect him so.
If Spotlight is more handsomely constructed than revelatory or incisive, it’s because McCarthy drapes the proceedings in a tastefulness that can be smothering. Despite the hot-button topicality at its core, Spotlight isn’t particularly emotional or outraged, and likewise the filmmaking tends to settle into a slightly staid professionalism that’s always crisp but never particular electrifying. But like its ink-stained main characters, it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.
by Todd McCarthy
A would-be All the Cardinal's Men, the less-than-resonantly titled Spotlight makes a dry affair of the sensational story of a small circle of Boston Globe journalists who, more than a decade ago, exposed the Roman Catholic church's institutional protection of sexually abusive priests. As numerous notable films have demonstrated, the spectacle of lowly scribes bringing down the great and powerful can make for exciting, agitating cinema, but director and co-writer Tom McCarthy's fifth feature is populated with one-dimensional characters enacting a connect-the-dots screenplay quite devoid of life's, or melodrama's, juices, which are what distantly motivate this story in the first place. Virtuous only by nature of its subject matter, this Open Road release, set to open in November, might have been more at home on the small screen.
It was a very big deal indeed when the church was finally called to account for its history of looking the other way or quietly shuffling misbehaving clergy off to obscure parishes when caught with their robes up or pants down. It was virtually unthinkable to the city's fifty percent Catholic population that the trail would lead all the way to the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, who resigned in 2002 when faced with numerous irrefutable first-hand testimonies.
To tell the story, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (the dreary The Fifth Estate) focus on the small investigative "Spotlight" team of Globe reporters, who routinely worked on stories for months and wouldn't give up on this one until their chain of evidence was complete and unbreakable. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't make them interesting and distinctive people, and the uniformly excellent actors playing them can't bring them to life all by themselves. The truly dramatic story here lies off-screen and to a great degree in the past, while the journalists' work consists mostly of persistence, constant grinding and not having a life until the job is done. (And maybe not even then.)
The summer of 2001 was a tough time for the Globe, which had been bought by the New York Times and, like most newspapers, faced an uncertain future. Most uncertain of all are the intentions of the brand new editor in chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), just arrived from Florida, a man with no knowledge of Boston and a clear mandate to shake things up.
Reporting to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) are Spotlight writers Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Marty Campbell (Brian d'Arcy James), who are set in their ways, although not necessarily in a bad way. They're all smart and have delivered the goods in the past. But they've never sunk their teeth into the subject Marty thinks could be worth pursuing, that of the victims of priestly abuse and the way the perpetrators have managed to go unpunished.
In fact, the Globe has been down this road before, but without much to show for it. Presently there are roadblocks stemming from sealed documents, the statute of limitations and a general reluctance by many victims to go public with such private and shame-producing experiences. But times are changing and Marty, keen to make the Globe "essential to its readers" again, sets the Spotlight gang loose on it.
While investigative journalism films may not comprise a full-fledged genre, there are still certain kinds of scenes in such stories that pop up so often that they do seem both formulaic and inevitable. Among them: Potential witnesses yelling at reporters and slamming doors in their faces, sought-after sources acting coy and slipping tiny hints designed to lead journalists on and drive them mad at the same time, big-shots inviting lowly scribes into rarified private clubs and bastions of power to try to get them to play ball, an editor seeing his shot at glory by pissing off the powers-that-be, reporters forsaking their health and private lives to get the story. These and more are all here, which underlines the problem of fundamental familiarity with a narrative like this: You keep charging ahead, against the odds, until you get the goods.
That's the way it goes here, but without strong characters or startling incidents that might have raised the film's pulse rate. Stanley Tucci cranks things up considerably as a psychotherapist who at first toys with the journalists before unloading gobs of sources and information, including such interesting claims that 50 percent of the Catholic clergy are not actually celibate. Neal Huff scores with the juicy part of a young man who tells all about his childhood of abuse at the hands of priests.
But the capable main actors don't have much to do except chase leads around town and interview those willing to talk; there's no depth given to these reporters. An opportunity is also missed with Schreiber's interloper character, who greenlights the investigation. It's stated that he's Jewish, but there are no reverberations stemming from this, either in the way he might have been regarded as a suspicious outsider by the Catholic establishment or in his own mind about how he thinks he's being perceived. He's a very clammed-up character as presented.
In the end, this material cant help but be interesting, even compelling up to a point, but its prosaic presentation suggests that the story's full potential, encompassing deep, disturbing and enduring pain on all sides of the issue, has only begun to be touched.
Gordon Willis managed to do some great things photographically with the newsroom setting in All the President's Men, but this film is exceedingly plain visually, while Howard Shore's low-key score becomes monotonous.