Sunday, December 20, 2015
In the long and distinguished catalogue of Boston movies Spotlight will take its rightful place at or very near the top. Like that other great Boston movie, The Verdict, it derives its dramatic energy from a clash between a powerful Boston institution, the Roman Catholic Church, and its seemingly powerless victims. Boston is ground zero for the discovery of the world-wide epidemic of child rape by priests. It was due to the valiant, dogged efforts of the spotlight team of The Boston Globe, another powerful civic institution, that these ugly crimes were brought to light. No one wanted to believe it; not even The Globe could digest the information when it first fell into its lap in the 1990s, and Editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton with subtlety and nuance, buried the story on the Metro page.
Then a newcomer arrives on the scene to take over editorial management at The Globe – Marty Baron, played with phlegmatic doggedness by Liev Schreiber, is an outsider: he’s not from Boston, he’s not married, he doesn’t even follow baseball, and he’s Jewish in a town run by Irish Catholics. Baron immediately recognizes the potential of this story and redirects the spotlight team to pursue it. This is their second chance to get it right. Enter Phil Saviano, played with intelligence and intensity by Neal Huff; he is head of SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests). He brings to a meeting with the spotlight team a box full of books about pedophilia in the priesthood, documents, court records – all the information is there but no one has bothered to connect the dots. No one except the attorney for the plaintiffs, the indefatigable Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci with amiable bluntness. He is “not a people person”; like Marty Baron he is an outsider (“How many Armenians do you know in this town?”); but he’s a careful lawyer and is able, through a mistake of the opposing counsel, to make public sealed documents which prove the complicity and the guilt of the Archdiocese of Boston. Garabedian has connected the dots; he knows that “if it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to rape a child”. Director Thomas McCarthy, who has to his credits another journalism movie: Good Night and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow, along with the TV drama, Boston Public, has somehow made a compelling drama out of library research and the hunt for court records. As we all know the Devil is in the details; and the Devil it seems is alive and well in ye old Puritan stronghold, which has furnished plenty of material from real life and legal proceedings for a long list of gothic horror stories from the Salem witch trials to the Winter Hill gang.
This is a movie about the importance of information, and the importance of the kind of investigative journalism it takes to discover and piece together fragments of data into a coherent narrative that demands reform, that pricks the conscience of the public, that brings to heel powerful institutions, that sends priests to prison and cardinals into exile. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this function to a democratic society; and it is easy to take for granted that it will somehow be done by somebody. One comes away from this movie feeling that a vital function of our democracy – “the Fourth Estate” – hangs by a thread. The spotlight team is nothing if not a modest bunch – they drive to work in Toyota Camrys, the wear chinos, rumpled sweaters and bad coiffures; but they do some of the most important work in this democracy. It makes you wonder where things are trending in the age of cable news, the facile mix of opinion and fact, news aggregator services, and slickly produced propaganda presented as fair and balanced journalism.
Michael Keaton brings a keen intelligence to the role with a clipped Boston accent. Mark Ruffalo, as Michael Rezendez, from Portuguese East Boston (another outsider), conveys powerful feelings with close ups of his face; just as Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, with her bad hair and rumpled sweaters, conveys earnestness – they both walk the fine line required of journalists between involvement and objectivity. John Slattery (of Mad Men) plays Ben Bradlee Jr., whose father was a major player in exposing the Watergate story at The Washington Post. But it is Michael Cyril Creighton who will make you cry for his portrayal of a victim of child abuse. He conveys both the vulnerability and the resilience of Joe Crowley, a gay boy who was repeatedly raped by the infamous Paul Shanley, and then passed around to Shanley’s friends. If you are a human being this movie will bring a tear to your eye and put a gulp in your throat. If you are a Bostonian, or have once lived in Greater Boston, you absolutely must see this film; it will rip your heart out and make you feel both shame and pride. Interspersed in the tepid applause at the end were the muffled sounds of catharsis: sniffles, sighs, audible moans. And for those who have never lived in this great city – you should see this film, which ends with a powerful punch in the gut by silently posting an astonishingly long list of sister cities that have been touched by this scourge, illustrating once again the power of cinema not only to inform but also to enlighten the public.