Directed By: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
Tag line: "Break the story. Break the silence"
Trivia: Tom McCarthy cited 1983's The Verdict and Sidney Lumet's style direction in that film as influences on this project
Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that, from first grade straight through to my senior year, I attended Catholic school. What’s more, my family was active in the church. My father occasionally served as a Lecter during mass (not often, but I remember it happening once or twice), and my mother volunteered her time any way she could (still does, actually). As for me, I was an altar boy the last 3 years I was in grade school, and it was during my second year “in service” that a new priest, recently stationed at our parish, took control of the group of us, writing our schedule, training new altar boys, and so on (He trained my brother, in fact, who followed in my footsteps when he was of age).
This priest was a young guy, in his mid-30’s to early ‘40s, and not only did he oversee us altar boys, but he also turned up at a Boy Scout jamboree one year, the only time a member of the clergy at my church ever did so. In addition, I remember some of my classmates singing this priest’s praises, telling me how cool he was, and how he’d sometimes invite them up to his room to show them X-rated movies. A friend of mine mentioned this in front of the priest one day, and instead of changing the subject or nervously making excuses, the priest said, quite matter-of-factly (even proudly), that the God who made heaven and earth also created bare boobs, and he didn’t see anything wrong with looking at them once in a while. Sure, I thought it sounded kinda strange, and maybe a little creepy, but being so close to puberty, I was more annoyed that I’d never been invited to one of these screenings (now, I thank God I wasn’t).
Soon after I moved on to high school, I heard that this priest had been abruptly reassigned to another parish. That was strange, I thought, seeing as it happened so quickly, and without any fanfare (normally, the parishioners would shower a departing priest with goodbye gifts, but nobody saw this one coming). After the scandal that broke in Boston in 2002, the story behind which is recreated so wonderfully in director Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film Spotlight, I now know why this priest’s departure was such a closely-guarded secret.
It was in 2001 that the Spotlight division, a group of investigative reporters working for the Boston Globe, received orders from their new editor, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), to look into allegations that a Catholic priest had molested dozens of children while serving in several Boston parishes. Headed up by Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight team, namely Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Caroll (Brian d'Arcy James), uncovered evidence that suggested more than one priest was guilty of this crime, and with the help of both Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer representing a number of victims; and Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), an abuse “survivor” who ran an organization to help those molested by the clergy, Spotlight learned that as many as 87 priests, stretching back decades, were likely pedophiles. Even more damning were the allegations that Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the well-respected head of the Boston Archdiocese, knew all along about the abuse, and ignored it. Over the course of a year, the Spotlight reporters delved deep into this troubling issue, knowing full well that the majority of their readers (who are Catholic) might turn against them once the story ran.
Spotlight is the type of movie that legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller would have loved. Having worked for a newspaper in his younger days (at age 12, he was a copyboy, and by 17 a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic), Fuller always held the press in high esteem, and some of his films, including Power of the Press (which he wrote but didn’t direct) and Park Row were veritable love letters to the fourth estate. By taking us behind-the-scenes, following along with the Spotlight crew as they interview victims and utilize public records, we get swept up in the excitement of it all. More than this, though, Spotlight gives us a new respect for journalists and the job that they do, revealing, sometimes in great detail, how difficult it can be to get to the heart of an issue as devastating as this one.
The cast that McCarthy assembled for Spotlight is beyond impressive. Michael Keaton continues the renaissance he experienced with 2014’s Birdman by delivering a solid performance as the leader of this team of reporters, and both McAdams and d’Arcy James are strong as the subordinates who struggle with personal dilemmas as the story unfolds. Yet it’s Mark Ruffalo (nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work here) who steals the show. From his tense early meetings with Garabedian to his dogged determination to get a peek at classified documents, Rezendes is arguably the most driven of the bunch, and Ruffalo perfectly conveys both his character’s resolve and, later on, his anger at those who covered it up (a lapsed Catholic, Rezendes considered returning to the church before this scandal fell in his lap). Also excellent are Liev Schrieber as the quiet, unassuming editor with excellent instincts; and John Slattery as Ben Bradlee, an old friend of Robertson’s whose initial reluctance to tackle the abuse story slowly melts away when he realizes just how far-reaching it truly is.
Anyway, back to the priest I mentioned above, and the reason why I’m not disclosing his name. Soon after the news broke in Boston, archdiocese all over the country, and then the world, faced similar scandals, with victims coming forward in droves to tell their horror stories to a now-attentive world. A year or so later, a list was published online naming all the priests in the Philadelphia area who were known to have molested children (I can’t remember who published this list, but as you can imagine, it caused quite a stir). Well, for a while there, I was checking this website regularly, and every now and then a new name appears on it, but as of today, the priest I told you about isn’t one of them. I heard he eventually left the priesthood (though I can’t remember who told me this), and a Google search of his name, performed moments before I sat down and started writing, returned only a single result (my church’s website, listing all the former priests who served at the parish).
Did this priest molest anyone? I have no idea. Maybe it’s like he said, that he just enjoyed looking at naked women, and invited curious pre-teens up to his room to share in the experience. Yeah, I know… it’s sick as hell no matter how you spin it. But the bottom line is, nobody ever came forward to accuse this priest of anything. Yet he clearly acted inappropriately, and later on was hurried out of town as quickly, and as quietly, as possible.
At the end of Spotlight, there’s a title screen telling us that, after the story broke, 249 priests in the Boston area were exposed as molesters. That’s a terrible reality. Even more frightening, though, is the very real possibility some still managed to slip through the cracks.