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USA 2015
Directed by
Tom McCarthy
128 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3.5 stars


Synopsis:  In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber) the new editor of The Boston Globe assigns its Spotlight team of journalists to investigate the story surrounding Father John Geoghan, a priest accused of molesting young boys, and the allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), the Archbishop of Boston, helped to cover it up for more than twenty years. Led by Spotlight’s editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) interview victims and with information provided by lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) the reporters make it their mission to provide proof of a cover-up.

Given the level of international public focus in recent years on the subject of sexual abuse amongst priests within the Roman Catholic Church, it’s surprising that the story at the heart of this film; the Boston Globe’s exposé of both the abuse and the systematic cover up and protection of the perpetrators, was only published in 2002 (a year before director Tom McCarthy’s first feature, The Station Agent).

McCarthy has assembled a terrific cast for his latest film and, together with screenwriter, Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, 2013) has, by all reports, crafted an accurate and faithful retelling of the events surrounding this important story. Despite the value of this the enormity and significance of the events it reveals, the film falls short of its potential to really delve into the mechanics and motivations that lie behind the facts they uncover.

The gold standard for the real-life investigative journalism film is probably Alan J Pakula’s 1976 classic, All The President’s Men, and whilst Spotlight has all the elements to meet that standard, it opts to stay largely within the bubble of the newspaper world. It offers a fascinating look into the painstaking and methodical background work and research involved in uncovering a truth they can be certain about and whilst this is compelling in its own way, there are two distinct drawbacks to it. The first is that it requires a lot of scenes of characters sitting at desks leafing through files and scrolling though microfiche and making endless phone calls which, despite the quality of McCarthy’s and Singer’s writing, can’t help but be static.

The second, more important drawback is the lack of insight into how and why this terrible crime was allowed to continue.  We are privy to much of the internal machinations and politics of the newspaper office, but are prevented from knowing the same about the Church. In one scene, though, the film comes tantalisingly close. Coming out of a montage of diligent reporters knocking on the doors and being repeatedly turned down for comment or interview, Pfeiffer finally confronts a former priest who unapologetically admits to abusing young boys and justifies it by telling her he gained no pleasure from it. To her (and our) frustration, however, the interview is cut short. It’s a missed moment that could have been the equivalent of the great scene in All The President’s Men where Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) happens upon the Book-keeper and like drawing blood from a stone, extracts key information that both breaks the story wide open and gives us a glimpse into what was going on in the White House. In the same way, Pfeiffer’s doorstep interview might have revealed something of what to most of us is incomprehensible but the film doesn’t go there and, despite her vowing to return to him later, she never does (or at least, we never see him again).

One of the real strengths of the film, though, is its sense of the parochial nature of Boston as a town where being a Bostonian seems to count for everything and being a Catholic Bostonian even more so. The powerful clubiness of the Establishment is well represented and the resistance to ‘doing the right thing’ is palpable. At one point the Globe's publisher, Ben Bradlee Jnr (John Slattery) - the son of Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post Editor (played by Jason Robards in All The President’s Men) - points out that more than half their readership is Catholic. The inference, throughout, is that it takes an outsider like Baron to find the will to crack open a story that will bring shame to the town. Curiously, even though we’re given a glimpse of the grass roots Bostonian Catholic courtesy of Sacha Pfeiffer’s grandmother (Eileen Padua) we never learn what, if any, backlash there was to the Globe breaking the story.

What we’re left with, then, are some fine performances (especially by Schreiber) and a very good insight into one of the foremost investigative journalism teams in America (they won a Pulitzer Prize for this story). But as shocking and reprehensible as the subject matter is, we already know a lot of this information now so it’s not a revelation to find out what was going on and how widespread the cover-up was.  What would have been a revelation would be finding out how the cover-ups were managed, how the priests justified their actions to themselves and their church and why the hierarchy went to such lengths to protect them. That would have made for compelling viewing and might have made a good film great.




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