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Shining a Spotlight

In 2001, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists uncovered a plethora of cases of child sexual abuse within Boston Catholic churches. They won a Pulitzer in 2003 and their findings led to thousands of victims coming forward and a worldwide scandal for the Catholic Church.
The movie Spotlight tells their story and it’s discomforting in the best way. The film is told with a seriousness that almost feels like a documentary, the performances are very straightforward -never too passionate, and the tone is incredibly grim. But this is a story that really warrants that kind of presentation.
The Spotlight team of the Boston Globe are investigative journalists whose stories are deeply researched and can take almost a year to publish. When the paper’s new editor (Liev Schreiber) takes over he encourages the team to follow a small story about a paedophile priest. The team played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James, eventually find a larger pattern of priest sexual abuse cases and a cover-up by both the Archdiocese and their legal authorities. Also that their own paper may have had evidence of these revelations that was ignored in the past.
This is one of those movies that despite not having a lot of action or major stakes for the protagonists, is unbelievably engrossing and as I said, very uncomfortable. It has one of the most disturbing opening scenes in a film and from there on it just flows so naturally. The tone is concerned with presenting the facts as they come up and in frightening details. The scale of the discoveries is never compromised and as the journalists and audience learn more about the situations from various victims, it’s easy to become enraged. I also appreciate the portrayal of the actual journalism. It does get tedious at times but that is investigative journalism. There’s a lot of research to be done, verifying of sources, being sure they get all they need and that it’s correct before publishing. And because of the magnitude of this kind of uncovering you really feel that they were right in taking their time, that they pursued more allegations even after they’d discovered more than enough, as it paid off all the more in the end. And there’s a need for justice to be brought to the victims.
The performances of the victims are really good. The psychology and behaviour of these characters almost convinces you they really were victims of molestation. Particularly so is a gay man who recounts a disturbing story about coming out to his priest and a tortured man who explains the spiritual ramifications he felt at the hands of his abuser. The main performances are very toned down and real. When the team reacts they do so with genuine but subdued expressions of shock that aren’t over-the-top. Ruffalo, Keaton, and McAdams still stand out and deliver terrific performances. In fact the ensemble itself is absolutely superb. The cast also includes Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Len Cariou.
But something else I really admire is how easy it could have been for this film to be anti-Catholic, yet it stays away from attacking Catholicism. Religious beliefs rarely factor into this film and they make it clear it’s more the people and institution they’re after. Many of the characters come from Catholic backgrounds and actually have fond memories of the church making their discoveries harder to take. There’s also a development that lays some blame on the Globe itself. With a story that could easily vilify and alienate the Catholic church, it’s great that this film tried its hardest not to do that.
Spotlight is the next generation’s All the President’s Men. Only it’s more dramatic and disturbing. Director Tom McCarthy really constructs this film smartly with a focus and tone that is perfect for the subject matter. It’s straightforward and effective without being exploitative or underplayed. It’s one of the best executed films of the year, it’s got a great ensemble, excellent writing, and it’s cringe-worthy -which for a film like this is actually a compliment.

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