The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal was one of the biggest blows to the nearly two thousand year old institution since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door. It’s a scandal that’s spread across the world and undermined people’s faith in the Holy See in even its biggest strongholds like Ireland and Poland and it’s probably done more to push the world towards secularism the collected writings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Weird thing is, when it first started to be uncovered I didn’t really see what the big deal was. It would seem that there would be pedophiles and rapists in just about every walk of life whether it be the church, the military, or sandwich spokesmen, so why was this scandal so potent? The answer, it turns out, was pretty obvious: as with Watergate the cover-up was worse than the crime. It soon became clear that the church wasn’t just filled with pedophiles but that its leaders were actively covering up these crimes and failing to keep young people out of harm’s way because of it. Also, like Watergate, this massive cover-up was only uncovered because of the diligent work of a group of dedicated investigative journalists it’s that first investigation that’s at the center of the new Tom McCarthy film Spotlight.
The film focuses in on The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, which is essentially a small investigative task force which focuses in on a single story at a given time in order to seek out corruption. As the film begins the Spotlight team is in-between stories when the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), approaches them about a mostly unnoticed story that the Globe had recently published about a possibly mishandled abuse case within the Catholic Church and strongly implies that that should be their next investigation. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of Spotlight, is extremely wary about kicking this particular hornet’s nest given how powerful the church is in Boston but still decides to send his reporters, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) to check out various leads. Quickly it becomes apparent that there is a story to be found in all of this and that it’s probably all been there the whole time waiting for someone to have the will to find it.
Spotlight is one of those movies that’s probably more notable for what it isn’t than for what it is, which is to say that it’s biggest triumph is that it manages to avoid falling into a whole host of pitfalls that other movies with this subject matter could easily fall into. To give one small example: the movie is set in Boston and isn’t shy about that fact, but it also doesn’t make everyone in the cast talking in a thick “pock the caw” accent. It also wisely avoids making Catholic Church officials into mustache twirling villains so much as self-preserving bureaucrats whose ultimate motives are pretty far out of sight from the film’s heroes. Another thing it seems to get right is that it avoids the temptation to make newsrooms look sexier and more expensive than they really are. This is very much a movie about the due diligence involved in journalism and it has the luck of being set just before Google became a primary research tool so we get to watch a lot of analog techniques like ordering archived newspaper clippings in order to look up information that had previously been published by the newspaper. Tom McCarthy and his writing partner Josh Singer have clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching the movie and it certainly shows on screen.
There’s really not a whole lot to say about Spotlight, it’s a very tastefully mounted and well-acted drama that sits right next to this year’s Bridge of Spies on the “there’s nothing wrong with this but maybe not enough right either” boat. The movie seems to have received a rapturous response from critics when it debuted on the festival circuit but I’ve got to say a lot of the hype is a little mystifying, to me it just kind of seemed like another newspaper movie. There’s not a whole lot that this movie does that All the President’s Men didn’t already do thirty five years ago, and while that movie shouldn’t have a monopoly on the subject of newspaper reporting I still have trouble seeing this new installment in the genre as some kind of breakthrough. I’ve heard theories that the movie might hold some special significance to the professional critics out of a sort of journalistic solidarity with the subject-matter, and I guess that’s as good a theory as any because the reception to this seems to have very little to do with any special cinematic merit. But then maybe I’m being unfair and holding the movie to a higher standard because of the hype. I certainly don’t want to undersell the movie, it is definitely a very well made drama and I may in fact just be a little underwhelmed simply because the filmmakers make this look easier than it really is but there is a certain point where understated filmmaking stops being wise and starts to just lead to understated responses and that’s where I am on this one right now.
*** out of Four