Substance over Showmanship

Tom McCarthy
Writer - Director

Josh Singer

Movie Review



Screenplay by: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Based on true events, Spotlight is a biographical newsroom drama that details the story behind a scandal that rocked the Boston Archdiocese in January 2002. Chronicling the Boston Globe’s shocking discovery and systemic unmasking of the Massachusetts Catholic Church’s rampant corruption and sexual abuse, Spotlight proves to be one of the finest films of the year.

When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), executive editor of the Miami Herald, is transferred to become the Boston Globe’s new editor in 2001, events are set into motion that will result in one of the most sensational journalistic discoveries of the twenty-first century. On his very first day at the Globe, Baron expresses his desire to investigate a case involving Catholic priest John Geoghan, who – as the Globe itself would later print – “preyed on young boys in a half-dozen parishes in the Boston area while church leaders looked the other way”, until he was finally defrocked in 1998. Set in a time when the Catholic Church is depicted as having great political power in Boston, Baron’s colleagues react to “essentially suing the Church” with equal parts disbelief and reluctance.

However, impelled by an old Globe column which followed lawyer Mitchell Garabedian’s (Stanely Tucci) claims that the Archbishop of Boston had in fact been fully aware of Geoghan’s paedophilia but had done nothing to intervene, Jewish out-of-towner Marty Baron is determined to delve deeper. The Globe’s resourceful Spotlight team – an investigative unit usually dedicated to months-long research periods – is consequently tasked with further examining the case, and thus begins our story.

Under the capable leadership of Walter ‘Robby’ Robbison (Michael Keaton), Spotlight’s team comprises of reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Together, the journalists embark on a horrifically revelatory journey that is set in an almost infuriatingly analogue period. Audiences are transported to the year 2001, during which the Spotlight team painstakingly sift through decades-old evidence and dusty directories in their relentless quest for the truth without the Internet (Globe records had not been digitised at the time). While Michael Rezendes pursues Mitchell Garabedian for more information, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll resort to dedicated phone-calling, door-knocking, and file-poring.

Eventually, after weeks of leafing through old documents and newspaper clippings, Tucci, who is almost flawless as Garabedian, leads Rezendes to crucial ‘sealed documents’: damning legal evidence that the Church has apparently tampered with. As the movie progresses, the Spotlight team discovers that they are not just investigating Geoghan, but rather, several different priests who have been accused by numerous victims of molestation over the course of decades. Through their combined efforts and meticulous research, it is revealed that Cardinal Bernard Francis Law (who would soon resign after the Globe published their story in 2002), the Archbishop of Boston, had indeed been aware of the abuse, and had chosen to protect the molesters by burying the evidence and using the term “sick leave” as an official designation. We later find out that a shocking total of 250 priests in Boston alone had been accused of sexually abusing children over several decades.

In a marked departure from last year’s Birdman, Michael Keaton’s Walter Robbison is delightfully underplayed as Keaton adopts his real-life subject’s mannerisms in the reel, right down to posture and gait. Similarly, Schreiber plays his character’s un-Bostonian, inscrutable nature with polished conviction.  Rachel McAdams brings forth Sacha’s keen alertness with a refreshing softness, and Mark Ruffalo portrays Rezendes’ almost manic dedication with passion and sincerity, although he neglects to exercise an East Bostonian accent. In stark contrast, Brian d’Arcy James becomes dangerously forgettable in his portrayal of Carroll. While writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer work hard to avoid romanticizing our protagonists or deviating from the factual progression of events, this sometimes results in the characters coming forth as bland and repetitive. However, what Spotlight lacks in traditional action, it makes up for in material: this film is heavily dialogue-driven and fact-based, and the script often shifts from lightning-quick to deliberately slow, then back to lightning-quick again, thus maintaining a thrilling pace throughout.

Other notable characters in the film include Ben Bradlee (John Slattery), the assistant managing editor who experiences his own inner conflict at “going after the Church”, and attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), who had represented several victims of sexual abuse in the 1990s, and is depicted as having confidentially and lucratively settled a large number of these cases with the Roman Catholic Church. While the real MacLeish has publicly objected to his portrayal in the reel (“It’s unfortunate that the events in the movie involving me are the opposite of what occurred”), he goes on to acknowledge: “I want you to see the movie though. It’s an important film. It’s an incredibly important subject, and the law still protects perpetrators and those who enable them.”
Crudup portrays this lawyer as a cold, calculating man who, as it turns out, was actually one of the first to have urged the Globe to investigate the Archdiocese all those years ago. It is here that we note the dual motifs in this film. As viewers, we are neither encouraged to spew hate at the Church, nor are we told that the Spotlight team comprised of blameless, saintly heroes. Instead, we are provided with factual evidence and numbers, and are left to draw our own conclusions.

Throughout the course of this film, victims relive painful memories, and heart-wrenching lines such as “How can you say no to God?” leave viewers with goose-pimples at the sheer reality of it all. According to director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy, the majority of the film’s script has been put “sometimes in their words, or our words, or a combination. These (original Spotlight) reporters and editors read almost every draft we threw at them."

Paedophilia in the Church is explained as a “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon,” and one is forced to question the very foundations of one’s faith as eyes are opened to the glaring, ugly nature of it all. There is no sugarcoating: there is only the truth. Spotlight is deliberately low-key and unpretentious, favouring fact over flamboyance. However, in its adamancy to maintain restraint in terms of not ‘demonizing’ the Church, the film seems to have forgotten to ‘humanize’ the clergy. With the exception of a few references here and there, viewers are never given the chance to familiarize themselves with or understand a single priest.

Although the core Spotlight team is described as being “lapsed Catholics,” the emotional torment associated with their thorough investigation slowly becomes evident. Suggestions of emotional, mental and spiritual stress are witnessed in a few stirring scenes, and Mark Ruffalo, who mostly favours a lackluster, linear style of acting, finally breaks through this shell and shines in his role as a committed journalist who is hellbent on bringing the Archdiocese to justice. This, combined with Robbison’s guilt at not having joined the dots sooner at MacLeish’s behest, provides viewers with moving emotional material that effectively sustains the serious nature of the film.

Nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well as five other Academy Awards, the screenplay is decidedly simple, though never simplistic. In spite of the film having brought out the terrifying nature and reach of the Church, the Vatican has referred to it as “honest”, “compelling”, and has gone so far as to state that it would not discourage followers from watching it. Lapsed or not, this film serves as a jarring eye-opener to all, regardless of one’s faith or beliefs.

Distributed by Open Road Films, Spotlight tackles its dark themes in a mostly informative, almost matter-of-fact manner. McCarthy and Singer tell this hard-hitting story without so much as a hint at Hollywood-like exaggeration. The screenplay is almost masterful through its tact and grace in light of its gruesome nature and disturbing specificity, and, in spite of audiences being previously informed on the outcome of the story, watching the Spotlight team unravel Cardinal Law’s intricate web of lies and conspiracy is almost enthralling. Academy Award Winning composer Howard Shore’s hauntingly minimalistic soundtrack further enhances this experience, and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi paints a faithful picture of 2001 Boston.

Just like the original Spotlight team, at its core, this is a collaborative effort, and the cast works together with a distinct, fluid harmony that prevails throughout the film. McCarthy, in his quest for truth over theatrics, has certainly redeemed himself after The Cobbler’s failure as he masterfully avoids martyring his heroes. Be warned, however, that there is no neat bow-tying at the end of this gripping film: instead, viewers are left feeling uncomfortable, unsettled, and above all – awake.





   Tina Mohandas

Tina Mohandas is a songwriter, musician, tattoo artist, vintage motorcycle collector, and animal rights activist. Having conducted several successful events in London, she is the founder of Inferno Events in India, and co-founder of Bikerhood India. Currently writing her debut fantasy/sci-fi novel, she hopes one day to free every caged animal in the world..

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