I’d like to open this review with a few words about Kelly Clark.
Kelly was a good friend of my family who served as our personal attorney for many years. I knew him as a man of incomparable integrity, with a wonderful sense of humor. I bring him up because Kelly was also a devout Christian who was gravely and deeply offended by the rampant pedophilia within the Catholic Church. So for most of his career, Kelly made it his life’s mission to stand up for those who had been sexually assaulted and molested as children.
He specialized in cases against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, the Church of LDS, various school districts, and other such organizations entrusted with the well-being of strangers’ children. (He called them “institutions of trust”.) In 2010, Kelly won $20 million for an Oregon man who had been sexually abused in the early ’80s as a Boy Scout. Quite possibly his greatest coup came in 2012, when he scored an Oregon Supreme Court victory, forcing the BSA to publicly release 14,500 pages of confidential “perversion files” on suspected pedophiles within their ranks. Kelly then went on to successfully campaign the Oregon legislature, extending the statute of limitations so that childhood victims of rape could file lawsuits up until age 40, or within five years of when they realize the damage caused by the abuse.
Kelly died in December of 2013 at the age of 56, shortly following the death of his wife. I’m dedicating this review to his memory, and to the hundreds of rape survivors he stood up for. This is primarily because Spotlight is such a damn good movie, and such a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church, that so boldly examines the pedophilia scandal from so many angles, that I know Kelly Clark would be telling everyone to go see this movie if he was alive today.
The film’s title refers to “Spotlight”, a small team within the Boston Globe dedicated to long-term investigation of issues in great detail. It was this team that won a Pulitzer in 2003 for their coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Massachusetts, with ramifications that very quickly spread all over the world. And with this film, we get to see a dramatization of how that investigation unfolded.
It should go without saying that the film gets into the value and relevance of print media in an online world, but that stuff is mostly sidelined. No, there are far bigger issues at play here. To start with, pedophilia is a very nasty subject, and the filmmakers aren’t the least bit shy about taking it on. The film goes into great detail about what specific sex acts were done to these kids, why these specific kids were targeted, and how the kids were led to think that engaging in private sexual acts was okay. The movie talks about what happens to the victims in later years, discussing how and why they often spiral into substance abuse and even suicide. In fact, it’s genuinely heartbreaking to watch the reporters interview these alleged survivors, as it’s hard to tell if they’re mentally ill conspiracy nuts or if they really have been broken by the trauma they’ve endured.
And of course it doesn’t stop with the victims. As the plot unfolds, our reporters learn all about the tactics and legal loopholes that were used to keep the molestations quiet. There’s one scene in which we meet an admitted pedophile priest, and catch a glimpse of the terrifying mental gymnastics that he goes through to justify what he did. Even our protagonists have to answer for their role in the cover-up: There’s been evidence for all of this going back to the early ’80s, and where was the Boston Globe then? Nearly all of the characters in this movie grew up in Boston and were raised Catholic, so why did it take them so long to suddenly give a damn?
Which brings us to the issue of faith. There’s a very deliberate effort to make sure that the spiritual background of every character is at least mentioned in some way. And it’s not just the characters themselves who are forced to take a long hard look at reevaluating their faith (or lack thereof). No, a lot of our reporters have friends or family members who are still deeply Christian, and those relationships have to be reevaluated as well. There’s also the matter of Marty Baron (an inscrutable Liev Schreiber), a new editor who’s just come up to the Globe from Miami. And Marty’s Jewish beliefs are brought up (by the Catholic mouthpieces, of course) as a possible reason for why he tasked Spotlight with taking on the Catholic Church.
More importantly, have I mentioned that the film takes place in the year 2001? Because the plot is sure to mention a certain September day that prompted hundreds of millions all over the country to go find solace from their spiritual leaders. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly the best time to try and take down the Catholic Church, especially when it would mean piling one huge national disaster on top of another. And anyway, it’s tough for Spotlight to focus on the Catholic sex scandal when they and every other reporter in the whole damn country has been reassigned to work on covering 9/11.
There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in this movie, but the filmmakers succeed in keeping it all from getting too overwhelming. It certainly helps that this is based on a true story, which means we already know that the report will be published, the authors will get a Pulitzer, and the various pedophilia victims will finally be heard at the very least. It also helps that there’s a constant sense of momentum through the two-hour running time, which means that every awful story somehow works as a stepping stone toward a greater discovery that will eventually lead to the whole thing getting blown wide open.
That momentum and sense of constant discovery is also a significant part of what keeps the film entertaining through all of its various montages. Though of course it also helps that the editing is spot-on, the score is just moody enough to provide atmosphere without being obtrusive, and there’s some strategic use of dialogue through the montages to spice things up.
Getting back to the journalism angle, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that there are many, many scenes of people talking at great length. Yet the film gets away with that, because the characters are talking about such monumental secrets and dredging up such awful memories that the discussion becomes compelling. It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers show an infectious passion for analog data storage. It’s tough to show characters sorting through books, paper files, and microfilm in such a way that it looks entertaining; but the filmmakers somehow present all of that in a way that’s compelling to watch.
Director/co-writer Tom McCarthy deserves a whole ton of credit for making this film work. His superlative job here almost makes up for his last film, The Cobbler, which has the distinction of being Adam Sandler’s lowest-grossing movie to date. Seriously.
Of course, all due credit must be given to the phenomenal cast. Michael Keaton plays “Robby” Robinson, the so-called “player coach” of Spotlight, like the charismatic seasoned veteran that he is. His calm and methodical approach contrasts nicely with Mark Ruffalo, who plays the aggressive hothead of the group. (I should probably also mention that Ruffalo is playing a Portuguese guy, which is kind of questionable.) Rachel McAdams plays another Spotlight reporter, and it was so good to see McAdams holding the screen instead of coming off like a nonentity as she usually does. Liev Schreiber and John Slattery both turn in fine work as the higher-ups at the Globe. Brian d’Arcy James has the least to do among the main cast, but he still gets a neat little subplot upon discovering that he and his kids may be living near a house affected by the scandal.
Stanley Tucci is great to watch as an attorney who’s been beaten down by so many years of representing pedophilia survivors. Billy Crudup plays a lawyer hired by the Catholic Church, and he finds a surprising amount of nuance and sympathy in the character. And finally, major kudos are due to all the many actors who play victims and priests caught up in the scandal. All of them turn in heartbreaking work.
As for nitpicks, the main thing that comes to mind is that I wish the film might have shed a bit more light on the Catholic Church’s side of things. The greater Catholic system is only ever presented as a faceless monolithic evil, to the point where so many scenes are framed with giant looming churches in the background. That stands in contrast with how every individual character is treated with some degree of nuance and understanding.
I was tired of the party line talking about how “the Church has done so much good for this city” without going into detail about what “good” might possibly justify such insidious actions. The Catholic mouthpieces also like to talk about how the pedophilia was only the work of “a few bad apples” and there was no need to get worked up over one or two priests. And no one ever counters with the question of how much statutory rape qualifies as “too much.” Also, as we learn in the film, the number was way, WAY higher than one or two.
A couple of years ago, there was a movie called Philomena, which focused on a different scandal and cover-up within the Catholic ranks. In the climax of that movie, a church official complicit in the travesty said “The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge, not the likes of you!” I’d be very interested to know if any Catholic officials out there — who knew full damn well that this was more than just “a few bad apples” and deliberately lied about it while doing precisely nothing — might have justified their actions with a similar line. Outside the movie’s scope? Maybe. But it’s still a question worth asking.
A few teeny little nitpicks aside, I have no problem giving Spotlight full marks. It’s a very eloquent statement that the news media should make itself important to the readers, and not just reel off what the readers want to hear. It’s a bold and uncompromising movie about sex crimes, their victims, and their perpetrators. It raises some crucial questions about religion and its place in our world. And what makes it even more compelling is that there are no clear-cut good guys: the cover-up goes so deep that even the “heroes” trying to blow it open must accept some culpability for why it went on so long to begin with.
Superbly acted and directed, this is a fantastic presentation of a story that absolutely needed to be told. Go see it now.