Recent terrorist violence in Beirut and Paris left me and many others feeling vulnerable, sad, angry and fearful. I sensed the world shifting. So this week I wanted a smart and sensitive movie, not to escape from the world, but rather, to reflect on it.
Tom McCarthy’s quietly compelling Spotlight tells the story of a dogged team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe in 2001. They broke the story of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of 87 priests sexually abusing children in Boston — a story that later won a Pulitzer.
Structured like a detective thriller, Spotlight shows reporters piecing together the horrifying scale of abuse and corruption. Not once is it sensationalist or melodramatic. Eloquent writing, directing and acting insure that although we know the story, it’s suspenseful and engrossing throughout.
I first mentioned Spotlight as a TIFF top pick. It didn’t win the audience award, I suspect, because it’s neither showy, sentimental nor cynical. It makes one think as much as feel. Like McCarthy’s other indie films — The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win-Win — Spotlight has genuine emotional intelligence, a sense of how real people feel, act, live and fear.
Its stellar cast includes Brian d’Arcy, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci. They’re reporters. They hold their cards close to their chests. So the acting is subtle. It parses out revelations in darting glances at a notepad. Kudos for not sexualizing or backgrounding female reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (played by McAdams). She’s every bit as professional and nuanced as her male colleagues.
It’s hard to pick a standout, but Stanley Tucci comes close. As a curmudgeonly lawyer for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian enunciates a key theme: it takes an outsider to tell these stories. Those inside are usually too steeped in the comfort of denial.
Spotlight‘s atmospheric mise-en-scène lacks superheroes and space stations, so it probably won’t nab any art direction awards. Yet when set against Howard Shore’s moody score, the film captures the milieu of the newspaper world well, something The New York Times film critic A.O.Scott noted in his review: “Journalists on film are usually portrayed as idealists or cynics, crusaders or parasites. The reality is much grayer, and more than just about any other film I can think of, Spotlight gets it right.”
Beige and bare-walled apartments. Leftover pizza for dinner. Drab and fraying chairs in crowded unkempt offices. Petty bureaucrats guarding low-lit halls of records. Ironically, one of the few sun-lit scenes occurs when a survivor recounts heartbreaking memories.
Even minor characters are rich with individuality. Spotlight rejects euphemisms, but handles this history of violence with tact and respect. It makes sure there is no one “type” of victim. Some are straight, some gay; some are young, some old; a few are women and girls, most are boys and men. Some speak tough and some fragile. Each tone morphs quickly into the other, sometimes mid-sentence. All of them suffer self-recrimination, which the priests cultivated. Repeatedly, the film’s dialogue has the reporters — lapsed Catholics themselves — say it was just luck of the draw that kept them safe as children, unlike those whom they interview.
Undercurrents of Bostonian antisemitism are infrequent but damning, as in this scene below. Jewish editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes to The Boston Globe via The Miami Herald, and represents another outsider. He gets the story started, and refuses to let it go.
Spotlight focuses on challenging the institution. Yet it also reminds us that people create and sustain them. Like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby fans today, it’s more comfortable to blame, ignore and discredit victims with this reasonable-seeming logic: Maybe abuse happened, maybe it didn’t. We’ll never know for sure, so we shouldn’t accuse. Someone’s life could get ruined. Forget about it. Move on.
As Spotlight shows, the kids who were hurt knew. Decades later, they can’t move on, only dissolve into tears. They had zero power to speak about it, never mind stop it. One survivor says, “When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal: how do you say no to God?” The movie’s own tagline, credits and website promulgate a narrative of activism to extend past the theatre.
From the opening brief scene — a priest skirting arraignment way back in the 1970s — to the film’s sober closing frames, Spotlight also rallies us to resuscitate investigative journalism. As Scott notes, “Power operates in the absence of accountability.” When sustained research and independent oversight of our most powerful institutions is replaced by a Twittersphere that speaks in 140 characters or less, who else might be getting away with something bad?
In closing, go see the movie. Then read the real-life Spotlight team’s story here. Pay to subscribe to a newspaper that supports investigative journalists. You’ll be glad you did.