My friend and I were in the same driving class when we were juniors in high school. We both had August birthdays, so we were both among the last in our grades to begin driving. I had known him since preschool, but he had moved away and only recently moved back- that is to say, we were friends, but not particularly close. One night his mom picked us up from class. She was on her way to drop me off at home when we passed a big church. Of course, you’re always passing big churches in my hometown; there are almost as many megachurches in Plano as Starbucks.
“That’s the church with the pastor who exposed himself to his grandchildren,” she told us.
I looked over at my friend awkwardly. He started snickering. “Mom! That’s Aaron’s church.”
The camera in Spotlight passes by a lot of churches too. A character jogs from home to work; in the background of the shot is a church. A reporter gets a door slammed shut in her face; a church looms behind her. A victim confides in a reporter about the sexual abuse he endured as a child from a priest; a church rests immediately behind the park they are walking in, and there’s even a playground on the church’s plot. The victim even comments on it: “And of course there’s a church and a playground right there.”
This isn’t ham-fisted. A movie like Spotlight, about a Boston Globe department’s uncovering of a sex abuse scandal in the local archdiocese of the Catholic Church, could have overflowed with symbolism to the point of redundancy- we get it, the Catholic Church is everywhere. No, director Tom McCarthy doesn’t overdo it. He includes just enough so that we understand how much a part of life the Church really is in Boston. Over and over we hear from victims that getting attention from a priest was like getting attention from God. And many of the victims’ fathers were out of the picture, or they were poor, or both. The priests knew this.
Everything about Spotlight is understated. To a fault, sometimes. You get the feeling that a better director may have been able to do even more with this material. There was at least one character whose motivations I would have liked to have understood better. But you could also imagine a lesser director spoiling the natural intrigue of the story’s facts with unnecessary flourishes. As it is, the story speaks for itself, and the victims of nearly 90 priests in the Boston area are given a clear voice. If more could have been done, then Tom McCarthy erred on the right side of artistry.
This ensemble of actors is starry, but no one’s celebrity personality interferes with the story. In interviews, the cast has mentioned how they met with their real-life counterparts in order to accurately portray their idiosyncrasies on camera. It seems as if you hear this sort of para-production story often, but in Spotlight’s case, the on-camera result is remarkable. I can’t speak to how precisely they channel their roles, but Rachel McAdams (whose portrayal has been characterized as “frumpy”, which is patently untrue), Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo are unequivocally different people in this movie than we’ve ever seen them play before.
Ruffalo, as Mike Rezendes, is giving the kind of performance that is a magical combination of acting and Acting. He has the flashiest scene of anybody in the film, a very effective explosion of anger at Keaton’s Robby for declining to take the story they have to their editor (John Slattery) so the paper can run it. Robby knows that Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber), the paper’s new chief editor, wants them to bring down the system that the Church has put in place to protect abusive priests. The story they currently have only implicates the priests, and they need to get the cardinal. But Rezendes, having interviewed enough victims to have these priests’ atrocities imprinted on the forefront of his mind, wants the story to run now. So good is this scene that we clearly understand that Robby is right while clearly feeling Mike’s outrage. They need more time, but the victims’ voices deserve to be heard now.
I wonder at the state of this kind of journalism. One of the pleasures of Spotlight is watching the mundane details of the Spotlight team’s investigation bloom into real discovery. They look into windows on front porches, scribble notes on various notepads, make endless calls on corded phones, wait overnight inside courthouses to access public records first thing in the morning. McCarthy, his co-screenwriter Josh Singer, and his DP Masanobu Takayanagi provide the time and space for us to observe these journalists hard at work. There’s no shortage of investigative journalism today online, but how much change do these stories effect now? The Internet was in its infancy when Spotlight ran this story (you can tell it’s 2001 because there’s a shot of an AOL billboard in the movie). Do publications today have the kind of patience that Spotlight exhibited with this story in order to truly expose the sins of the system?
The opening story isn’t meant to evoke a false sense of victimhood. After all, nothing ever happened to me. I’ve never been raped, molested, or felt that I was in danger of anything similar happening. I am, as the characters in Spotlight would say, “one of the lucky ones.”
But I know people who have been preyed upon, who have been raped. You probably do too. That in and of itself, while horrifying and despicable, is not surprising. Even a cover-up by the Church isn’t shocking. What’s surprising is the scope of the cover-up. 87 priests in Boston alone, and the Church, with the help of attorneys and discrete police officers, simply relocated them. And, as title cards at the end of the movie demonstrate, this phenomenon was not exclusive to Boston. Scandals have been uncovered worldwide.
What Spotlight does so well is demonstrate how diligence and patience in journalism uncovered a systematic, citywide cover-up by the Catholic Church. This movie cares about the truth and implies that the press can, when it’s working properly, be the truth’s vessel. Spotlight is also honest that the press, like any other manmade system, is sometimes complicit in burying the truth. The final shot in the movie is a simple yet breathtaking declaration that, this time, they got it right.