Spotlight on the Catholic Church in McCarthy's Important Film

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Spotlight Films, 129 minutes, R (Sexual abuse themes)
* * * * *

The best film of 2015 is playing at a mall near you, but it's not titled Star Wars. Avoid the long lines, costumed geeks, and Gen Xers reliving their childhoods, and see Spotlight, the film about how a team of Boston Globe reporters blew the whistle on pedophile priests. Forget films such as Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and The Departed, the biggest organized crime syndicate in Beantown was the Roman Catholic Church.

Spotlight takes its name from a column produced by Globe investigative reporters. In 2001, four of them–Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) ––were at work on their usual shtick of exposing corrupt cops and crooked pols, when  two things happened: Father John Geoghan was arrested for child abuse, and the Globe hired a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Though a cheerless soul, Baron was a breath of fresh air across Back Bay–a man with a serious nose for news, a non-native unimpressed by insider complacency, and a Jew in a Catholic town. To Baron, Geoghan smelled like something cast from the middle of the barrel, not a single rotten fish, and he was right. Before the Globe collected a fistful of Pulitzers in 2003, more than 290 pedophile priests were fingered–a stunning one of seven within the Archdiocese of Boston. Even more distressing was that that a decades-long cover-up took place with the full knowledge of one of the most powerful prelates in North America: Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. Spotlight tells the sordid tale of how the Church's power, wealth, and cozy relations with Boston elites swept pedophilia under the rug.

Star Wars made more money in advance sales than this film has made since November, but Spotlight should be must-see viewing for all Americans. Many have stayed away because–let's face it–pedophilia is a distressing subject. Several friends have told me they couldn't watch a film about kids being abused. Rest assured–you won't.  Director Tom McCarthy steers well clear of all things graphic or salacious. There are no ominous scenes of priests hovering over little boys, no shadowy reenactments, and no melodramatic music presaging a child in danger. Spotlight is about the investigation, not the activity, and most of the action takes place inside the Globe, not inside the Church. It is, in essence, this generation's All the President's Men, Alan Pakula's 1976 drama of the Washington Post's investigation of Watergate. There's even a Deep Throat-like character, whose identity I'll leave you to discover. By extension Spotlight is a warning about the dangers of theocracy.  After all, the Church needed cooperation from other social institutions, including both City Hall and the pre-Marty Baron Globe, to maintain its house of cardinals. In other words, this film won't traumatize you, but it will make you quake with righteous anger.

Speaking of righteousness, Spotlight depicts a Catholic Church in the throes of a might-makes-right ethical crisis. This means it's a film about mental and spiritual abuse as much as physical violation. The Church's overarching grip helps us understand the many years of silence by the abused and their families. Imagine growing up in a world in which, as one victim put it, attracting the attention of a priest was like having God personally speak to you. In many ways, the power of the Church was analogous to the grip of the Mafia–there are some things about which one simply does not speak. Getting a glimpse of power's ebb and flow is reason enough to see Spotlight. And seeing how that power erodes in the face of corruption, awakened conscience, and calcified practices (such as celibacy and sacerdotalism) is another. As for breaking the silence, muse upon the anger of working-class adults from South Boston who have never set foot on Beacon Hill being lied to by the very institution that promised eternal reward.

This is, after all, a movie, so are there filmic reasons to watch? Plenty. First of all, it's well directed. I would think Spotlight a lock for the Best Picture Oscar, and McCarthy has to be the odds-on favorite for Best Director. We know how this ends. If I might, it was in all the papers. McCarthy's greatest trick is to keep us on the edge of our seats for a film filled with memes hurtling toward a foregone conclusion. It is so artfully done that we seldom notice when McCarthy pulls out the usual stops: near dead-ends that conveniently resolve, tearful confessions, lifted veils of fear, overcoming giant obstacles, beat-the-clock triumphs….

Unless I miss my guess badly, numerous cast members will join McCarthy on the Oscar podium. Mark Ruffalo is absolutely superlative and should win as Best Actor. Both Keaton and Schreiber are likely Best Supporting Actor nods, and McAdams might snare (and would deserve) Best Supporting Actress honors. The entire ensemble is so good that, by necessity, several stellar performances will be overlooked, so give a shout out to Billy Crudup as Church legal fixer Eric MacLeish, and Stanley Tucci as victims' lawyer Mitchell Garabedian.

But also watch this film so you understand why America needs newspapers. A healthy republic requires an informed and skeptical public. Ask yourself what blogger or TV reporter could have done investigative reporting analogous to that of the Globe. Even devout Catholics should be grateful to the Spotlight team. Draw a line from this story to Pope Francis (though he's yet to discredit the odious Cardinal Law). Put simply, without newspapers, the Monsters win. Put down that plastic light saber and educate yourselves, Citizens.

Rob Weir

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