SPOILER ALERT: Before the credit roll at the end of Spotlight, screening last night at the Trustees, there’s a very long list of places besides Boston where the Catholic Church priest sexual abuse scandal resulted in arrests.
Savannah, Ga., is on that list.
It makes sense. Like Boston, Savannah is a very parochial place -- both literally and figuratively -- with a large Irish Catholic population and a very influential Catholic Church.
As such, I think Spotlight had particular resonance for this local crowd seeing it at the Savannah Film Festival.
What’s most impactful about Spotlight, however, is that in addition to simply being a finely and tastefully crafted film, it doesn’t trivialize the abuse through maudlin sentimentalism, preferring instead to let story and characters largely speak for themselves without emotional manipulation.
More than any such “newsroom drama” I’ve seen, Spotlight expertly splits its focus between the impact of wrongdoing and the passionate pursuit of the truth by the eponymous “Spotlight” investigative journalism team at the Boston Globe, which broke news of the scandal in over 600 stories over the course of 2002.
A lesser filmmaker than Tom McCarthy would lean too far in one direction, thus mitigating the impact of both. As Spotlight stands, however, we feel not only empathy with the abuse victims and disgust at the system which protected abusive priests, but also genuine exhilaration and vindication as we identify with the groundbreaking reporting and research of the Globe journalists.
This is one of those films where you won’t be saying to yourself, “Wow what a great movie” as you’re watching it, but when it’s over you’ll find yourself blown away by the integrity of its vision and execution.
Ironically given this film’s lack of treacly sensationalism, I was particularly emotionally impacted by it. I left the theatre with not only profound sadness for the real-life victims but with newfound passion for my own career as a journalist. No small accomplishment for one movie!
The newsroom scenes are realistic and refreshingly free of cliché. Like actual journalists, the Globe team spends a lot less time musing on finer points of constitutional law than they do on time management and breaking a complex story down into serviceable parts.
Journalism is actually a pretty quiet pursuit, so rather than running around yelling "Stop the presses" and such, the team spends a lot of time just.... discussing things together courteously and professionally, as people do in the 21st century workplace.
Sounds boring, but because of the calm commitment of the cast and the tightness of the never-wandering script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, it works.
(Speaking of presses, however, I do confess getting a lump in my throat at the scene where the first run of the initial breaking story is printed and the papers are loaded onto the Globe delivery trucks. Kids, the internet is awesome but there's absolutely nothing in the world like that feeling.)
With just the right amount of dry Boston bravado, Michael Keaton plays Robbie Robinson, the gruff but compassionate Spotlight editor who went to Catholic school right across the street from the Globe offices.
His main bulldog reporter on the abuse story, Mike Rezendes, is played by Mark Ruffalo, who brings his usual sensitivity to the role, refusing to overplay it for cheap emotional release.
Some will complain, not without validity, that the only major female character in Spotlight, reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, suffers by comparison with the male leads. But as played by Rachel McAdams, the character is a key bridge between the male members of the newsroom and the actual abuse victims reluctant to go on the record with graphic testimony.
A nearly unrecognizable Liev Schrieber plays the quietly intense Marty Baron, brand-new Globe executive editor just brought in by corporate.
While neither Catholic nor from Boston, Baron’s initially controversial outsider status enables him to rise above the parochialism, both overt and subconscious, of many of his editorial team who’ve slowly become subsumed within the mores and folkways of insular, inward-looking Boston.
Again, a lesser film would have made Baron’s character the obvious, too-easy protagonist. But in Spotlight he’s the motivator of the action rather than the center of it, the film preferring to focus on the team’s struggles lifting the veil of secrecy from the church’s cover-up of the abuse.
And here again Spotlight makes a wise choice: There are no individual “villains” per se in the film, not even Cardinal Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese himself. The villain is the system itself which would systematically, almost clinically, cover up such heinous crimes.
As a lawyer for the victims, brilliantly played by Stanley Tucci, says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”