by: Josh Sczykutowicz
Josh Sczykutowicz praises Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight as one of the year’s best films…
Religion is a powerful thing. It runs in the blood. It gets passed down through generations. It defines some people’s entire lives. At its best, religion can provide a source of strength, guidance, acceptance, love, and community. Throughout history it has been something that individuals have turned to when they have had little else. So what happens when there’s poison in the spiritual bloodstream? What happens when that source of comfort becomes twisted, and perverted, and suddenly that unifying bond becomes a unifying silencer of the truth? What happens when those who are the most vulnerable become the most exploited by something that they have been taught to believe is holy, sacred, and to be trusted above all else?
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight explores these questions with absolute sincerity and with powerful presentation. In the early 2000s, a group of reporters at The Boston Globe, specifically a four person investigative team know as Spotlight, amassed a story that revealed what had been known privately by too many already. The Spotlight team’s meticulously researched expose blew the doors open for a massive wave of victims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church to come forward. It was a shocking revelation for many to behold, but for some, unfortunately, it came as no surprise at all. Spotlight presents the struggle, horror, and conflicts of faith that the Boston Globe’s investigation wrought upon all the reporters who unearthed the story.
Reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac in its thorough and methodical nature, McCarthy’s film is focused almost entirely on the journalists and their pursuit of the truth, no matter how disturbing it may be. But unlike those who worked on the real-life Zodiac case, a case that was burning on the lips and stuck in the minds of an entire nation, the reporters at The Boston Globe were pursuing a story that an entire establishment wanted to conceal. It was a story that no one beyond the victims and those complicit in covering up the scandals knew of, and that multiple institutions sought to keep hidden out of self-preservation. “They say it’s just physical abuse, but it’s more than that. This was spiritual abuse. How do you say no to God?” the first survivor interviewed, Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff), says in a deeply affecting scene. He speaks to how he and the other survivors (and they are survivors, Saviano stresses, calling attention to the fact that so many of the abused often commit suicide, or overdose from drug addictions) had their faith taken from them and how the abuses they suffered destroyed any sense of a just religious establishment they may have had. Later, another survivor seems sickened as he communicates the circumstances surrounding his abuse to reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (played superbly by Rachel McAdams in one of her most nuanced roles yet) while observing the paradox of a playground situated beside a church in the park they walk through.
Almost all the characters in Spotlight have had their faith compromised by these horrendous crimes. Pfeiffer stops attending church with her devout grandmother. Walter Robinson (another excellent dramatic turn for Michael Keaton) appears deeply disturbed with himself for having been involved in Catholic schooling, and having failed in piecing together these numerous atrocities until it was too late. Any sense of faith Robinson may have had seems absent. And most of all, in an Oscar worthy performance from Mark Ruffalo, journalist Mike Rezendes tells Pfeiffer how, before all of this, he’d always believed he’d come back to the Church. He perpetually held out hope that one day he’d return to the faith. In one particularly haunting scene, Ruffalo’s character finds himself on Christmas Eve watching a choir of children singing “Holy Night,” a mix of pain and anguish filling his face, his eyes uncertain with what to feel, as he looks with mournful eyes from child to child. How many of them are being abused? How many of them will have their story told? How many of them will live to tell it?
It is this theme of faith lost that Spotlight shines the brightest light upon. McCarthy takes an incredibly sensitive and sinister subject and pulls no punches, yet manages to maintain a sensitivity and delicateness that is respectful to the subject matter. And he finds a way to highlight the blissful ignorance that embodied this time period. There is a moment in the film when after confronting a former priest who matter-of-factly admits to molesting numerous children, Pfeiffer walks out onto a street where children ride bikes. Nearby, a school bus sits, parked just across the way from this man’s home. What is so interesting here is that McCarthy is alluding to the fact that life is simply moving on. A massive cover-up of predators preying upon trusting children is completely being ignored, or dejected by almost anyone who might be able to do anything. The whole city of Boston is acting like it’s any other day, while so many are unbearably hurting as the powers that be tighten their grip on the truth.
Spotlight is not condemning of faith, it is condemning of those who exploit it. Of the institutions who twist it, who manipulate those with it and the groups who protect those who do so. Lawyers, teachers, religious leaders, police officers, reporters – so many come forth throughout the film and inform the team investigating that they all knew. But no one wants to have to cuff a priest, as one officer tells them. Not long after 9/11, a Church leader tries to tell Robinson that they are in a time when people need their faith more than ever, and that to interrupt that trust would help no one. But to stay silent would help people, and those people are the abusers, the pedophiles and the liars who brushed the Catholic Church’s entire history of abuse beneath the pew. The team of committed reporters uncover eighty-seven suspected priests in their initial investigation, numbers that seem small compared to the staggering long list that fills the screen at the film’s conclusion, as a caption reveals to the audience audience how many reached out to The Boston Globe after the Spotlight team ran their story.
Much like the lauded HBO series The Wire, Tom McCarthy illustrates with clear vision the way that such a failing requires far more than just one institution to be corrupted. It is the entire infrastructure, a complicit web of deception, that allows for an atrocity of this magnitude to occur and be covered up. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them,” attorney Mitchell Garabedian, played impressively by Stanley Tucci, clearly states. Priests, policemen, journalists, parents (who left cookies out for members of the Church as they visited their children to discuss molestation claims), lawyers, county clerks, and the judicial system failed hundreds of children, and no retribution can ever compensate for the damage done to any of the young victims.
Invoking simple yet purposeful camera work, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, in companion with Tom McCarthy, crafts a powerful and moving piece of art that is incredibly relevant to our times. It is a necessary film. A powerful and affecting film that is ultimately disturbing and heartbreaking in its revelations and scope. But imagine what the journalists who spent so much time immersed in this transgression must have felt. Imagine what the survivors and their families must have felt. Imagine how they still feel.
Few films released this year feel as important as Spotlight. Few films feel this impactful. When it ended, the audience I saw it with sat largely unmoving for several moments. Some were holding back tears and some were openly weeping. Hushed, impassioned conversations consumed the audience as the credits rolled. Few dramas are capable of having such an impact on their audiences. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is guaranteed to be remembered due to its ability to engage the audience in this way, and fully deserves to be.