Spotlight, the Oscar-nominated fact-based drama from director Tom McCarthy, highlights the investigation taken by the Boston Globe newspaper in 2001 into cases of child abuse by Catholic priests in Boston – a story which ultimately blew the lid off systemic corruption and cover-up throughout the Catholic Church worldwide. In many cases, victims were told these were isolated cases, paid off, and the priests were not prosecuted but sent for “rehabilitation”, before being placed back in a different parish, where they would frequently re-offend. The film brings to mind the very best investigative journalism movies, including such hallowed gems as All the President’s Men.
The Spotlight investigative unit comprises Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They are overseen by part-of-the-furniture boss Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) and new big cheese outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who proves invaluable simply because he isn’t a part of the heavily Catholic Boston culture and can therefore view the situation objectively. Billy Crudup turns up as a dubious lawyer who handled settlements for abuse victims, and between them Stanley Tucci and Jamey Sheridan essentially split the “Deep Throat” role, eventually being persuaded to do the right thing and dish the dirt, thanks to the dogged determination of the Spotlight journalists.
The ensemble cast all do very well, with perhaps Ruffalo nosing slightly ahead of the others, thanks in part to a dramatic if contrived sequence where he is repeatedly frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles in an attempt to obtain critical documents. McCarthy and Josh Singer’s restrained screenplay keeps the scenery chewing to a minimum, and instead concentrates on the diligent minutiae of the investigators, building their case piece by piece, patiently waiting until they can expose the extent of this insidious conspiracy of silence. A suitable modicum of outrage is kindled within the viewer, especially in scenes where victims describe the abuse (obligatory warning for swearing and sexual abuse references duly inserted here), but solid though the drama is, this never quite reaches the seething-with-rage levels of belligerence so memorably whipped up by other movies about the failures of the Catholic Church (such as Philomena, for instance).
That said, several very important spiritual points are touched on here, and not just obvious ones like abuse of power and misrepresentation of God. Indeed, the film highlights what for me is the contentious core of the issue: the oath of celibacy taken by Catholic priests. The film points out how most priests end up having sex with other adults in any case, so there is already a culture of secrecy within the Catholic Church. This culture of secrecy becomes a cloak behind which the paedophile priests were able to hide. I find it interesting that if you simply take what the Bible says about qualifications for church leaders, it appears to teach the exact opposite of celibacy in 1 Timothy Chapter 3, stating such a leader should be “the husband of one wife”. Is it possible that the paedophile priest problem within the Catholic Church might not have been so extensive had they followed this simple Biblical instruction? For any believer, it is a question worthy of serious consideration.
Ultimately, Spotlight is a solid, thought-provoking piece of work. Technically it isn’t groundbreaking cinema, and for me All the President’s Men still has the edge on this. But it remains a strong entry in the investigative journalist drama sub-genre.