There have been a number of films which have dealt with the subject of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. Most memorable is Alex Gibney’s damning documentary Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) and Pablo Larrain’s The Club (2015). While the latter is a dark work of fiction based upon an overwhelming truth, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer chose the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The Boston Globe as the basis for their screenplay, Spotlight.
In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) took over as Editor of the Globe and immediately suggested that a group of journalists: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’arcy James), led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) look into the case of Father John Geoghan and the accusations of child abuse that were levelled at him. Although the events of 9/11 delayed their investigation until 2002, the Spotlight journalists joined forces with lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to expose the lengthy cover-up by the Church and how this Priest and the 86 others, within the State of Boston, were deemed above the law.
Hollywood has a way of sanitising; it is why, I would argue, European cinema hits harder. Spotlight is the exception to the rule. It recounts those tireless, investigative months with dignity, anger and drama and only for the intertitles and events detailing 9/11, it is timeless, and reminiscent of that last great newsroom -based drama, All the President’s Men (1976) by way of something as emotionally-charged as Philomena (2013).
We know the characters names and there are obvious hints to their marital statuses and even the faith within which they were raised but no unnecessary character development deviates from the point of this low-key yet impacting film. The Globe’s involvement is two-fold; selling newspapers but also making amends by detailing a story they had access to five years previously. This is about facts and exposing the truth, while making an audience engage with what they are seeing.
It also throws up some infuriating questions – for the audience, and the characters onscreen – does the ‘good’ work of the Catholic Church cancel out the heinous and systematic abuse? (This is rhetorical.) Upsetting the cart for a few bad apples is an analogy best suited for this horror. When all is said and done, it wasn’t/isn’t all Priests but some 6% of any one discretion, according to former-Father and psychiatrist Robert Sipe. The incredulity of the reporters, when they think they are dealing with only one Priest, triples as realisation hits (remember what that felt like); just how many “fool around” with children? These predators targeted a specific type of child – poor, working class; those who would take whatever pay-off they were offered and keep their “shame” to themselves. The Church has money and they turned child abuse into a cottage industry while putting more children in danger by not dealing with the problem but merely reassigning Priests to other parishes for the cycle to begin all over again.
Oh, and I’m not just “another lapsed Catholic pissed off at the Church”, as John Slattery in his guise as Ben Bradlee Jr flippantly states. I’m a furious, lapsed Roman Catholic who cannot comprehend the immoral and criminal way in which men (and women) of my faith behave(d). Anybody, regardless of creed, who harms a child is evil and the rationalisations which, seemingly, members of the Church place upon that level of abuse are horrifying. Apparently, there is a distinction between abuse, rape and sexual gratification and a pederast can walk out of a police station without charge as long as he is wearing clerical dress. Guilt, according to Spotlight, also lies outside of the abuser. How many people, including men of power, knew and did nothing? Mitch Garabedian/Stanley Tucci says it best, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
Spotlight is a tremendous piece of work. It makes for a riveting watch and is incredibly moving and thrilling. Everything within the mise-en-scène is very subtle, even downplayed including McCarthy’s direction; Howard Shore’s score is sombre, restrained and emotive without ever feeling manipulative, and the cast? Every single one of them is outstanding and it is the best ensemble piece seen in a long while; from a very passionate Rezendes/Ruffalo to the staid and calming force of Baron/Schreiber. This is one of those flawless films you don’t want to miss and more importantly, shouldn’t.