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Spotlight

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Nov 6, 2015
'Spotlight'
'Spotlight'  (Source:Open Road)

"What do you know?"

The line is spoken early in the Tom McCarthy-directed movie "Spotlight," and though it's uttered in jest, it hangs over the entire picture like an accusation, along with its unspoken corollary: What are you not telling?

The film is named after the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that uncovered a massive, decades-old -- and, as it finally turned out, global -- criminal conspiracy perpetrated by officials of the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who has read a newspaper, surfed online, or watched television in the last 15 years will have some idea of the issue as a whole: The church actively covered up the misdeeds of a number of its priests, opportunistic pedophiles who sexually assaulted children of both genders. Worse: The offenders were not dealt with civilly, but rather by the church's internal bureaucracy, which had a distressing tendency to move them around from parish to parish and congregation to congregation.

This meant that the assailants kept right on assaulting. The scandal turned into a billion-dollar crisis for the church, but the spiritual crisis it unleashed is ongoing -- and the enormity of the damage done to lives forever altered may defy calculation.

The film focuses on the four Boston Globe employees who comprised the Spotlight team at that time, in 2001; three reporters and their editor, the latter of whom, Walter "Robby" Robinson, is played by Michael Keaton. Above him is Ben Bradlee, played by "Mad Men's" John Slattery, and the Globe's newly-appointed editor, a Jewish man named Marty Baron (Live Schreiber).

It's Baron who directs the Spotlight team toward a story about a child molesting priest, asking for follow-up to a piece written by one of the paper's columnists. There's reluctance at first, and even resistance; Boston is a Catholic town, and no one wants to believe that its men of the cloth could be assaulting kids. Then, too, the people who seem to be pushing the idea that there's some sort of persistent and institutionally pathological "pattern" to be discerned seem, at first glance, less than entirely credible; there's a jittery man named Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), who runs a group for survivors called SNAP, and there's a somewhat snappish, even eccentric, lawyer by the name of Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who's representing purported victims. A lot of purported victims.

The implications are so disturbing as to be practically unimaginable, but when the team starts digging they keep finding that the story, rather than trailing off or disintegrating into an incoherent jumble of unverifiable claims, becomes more and more coherent -- and larger and larger in scope.

The city's political, social, and religious network begins to exert pressure on the Spotlight team, but there are internal pressures that drive the individual reporters. Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a young and energetic guy, is the sort of hot-head who's all too keen to sink his teeth into a big, trouble-making story... until he realizes the magnitude of what he's getting into, at which point it's hard for him to keep his cool and refrain from detonating the story in a blaze of premature, but insufficiently substantiated, headlines. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), the team's sole female member, has a personal investment in the church insofar as attending mass is something she does with her deep devout grandmother. Matty Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) realizes that there's an entire household of suspect clergymen a street or two away from his own home, and lies awake nights worrying for his children, and those of his neighbors.

As uneasily as the team begins to piece together an understanding that the problem is not only real, but downright mammoth, a harder understanding dawns on them that they've had the story right there in front of them for years, but have been unwilling -- and psychologically unable -- to see it.

The film touches briefly on a number of associated questions, many of which have been picked over more extensively elsewhere. One source -- a longtime researcher into the subject and former priest who remains a disembodied source on the phone -- blames the church's celibacy requirement, and notes the stunted psycho-sexual development of the perpetrators. (The Amy Berg doc "Deliver Us From Evil" talks about this in quite a lot more detail.) The activist Saviano, himself the childhood victim of a pedophile priest, points out that the perps are not gay; they are opportunists who choose their victims early on -- who is accessible, and partly on who is less likely to talk. (This remains a distinction lost on the church itself, which has made empty gestures at reform -- gestures that have taken a decadently anti-gay slant.)

All this is helpful in terms of starting to understand the nature of the abuse and those who practiced it, as it the brief appearance of an abuser, a priest who tells Sasha that he "fooled around" with boys but never enjoyed it, and, furthermore, "never raped anyone" -- a distinction he claims to know because, he says, he himself was raped.

But the larger question the film drives toward is one of faith: Not in God, per se, but in human institutions, including the church, into which we place our trust, our safety, and the safety of of our children. How could such massive, systemic abuse have continued for so long? Where were the police, the courts, the press itself for so many years? As a decidedly slimy Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) tells Robby, it's a matter of the city's core institutions bolstering one another. It's a matter, in other words, of overlooking individual acts of evil so as to hold tight to larger things like fellowship and community. But that urge to protect larger things can also embrace the treachery of a comforting -- but dangerous -- form of denial.

"Spotlight," indeed. This movie has plenty of flaws -- minor anachronisms, more major structural imperfections such as a tendency to hand too much scenery to Ruffalo to chew on -- but it also possesses a devastating quality. This film will illuminate, even as it grinds against still-raw wounds, but sometimes that's part of the healing process. This is a movie that sometimes reeks of self-importance, but that doesn't mean it isn't important; though the nits are there to pick at, "Spotlight" is necessary, a movie that needed to be made, and needs to be seen.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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