When you’re a poor kid, from a poor family, and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?
It was a shocking story that cried out to be heard. Only for years, no one who wanted to write it would choose to take on the establishment, which in this case was the Archdiocese of Boston. And no one wanted to talk about it – not the victims, not the attorneys, and certainly not the Church.
But the story would not and could not remain in the shadows for ever. The Boston Globe would win a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 in investigative reporting for their work on uncovering (and bringing to light) decades of sexual abuse of children by Boston priests, and the systemic and institutional maneuverings by the Archdiocese which resulted in the Church shielding at least 70 priests.
This film, Spotlight, tells the story of the Spotlight group, a team of three reporters, and their editor at the Boston Globe and how they brought this story public. It was much farther reaching then they thought when they began. As Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Spotlight team editor, played by Michael Keaton, would say –
We’ve got two stories here, the story about a bunch of degenerate priests, and the story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry.
Everything was stacked against them.
The readership of the Globe was 53% Catholic, and between the Irish and the Italians, who made up nearly a quarter of Boston’s population, they were in reality, an audience not ready for the story. In fact all of the Spotlight team were either lapsed Catholics, or had left the Church, hoping to return someday.
Reporter Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, had developed a source – a former priest who for the last 30 years had worked in clinical psychiatry studying what made these priests not only break their vows of celibacy, but also go down the even darker road of sexual abusing children.
By his figures, based on 30 years of research, this Sipes told Rezendes that he figured that roughly six percent of all priests fit into that category, those who act out sexually.. Now Boston had approximately 1500 priests – so six percent of that figure would be 90.
When he heard that number, Deputy Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr, played by Mad Men’s John Slattery was astounded.
90 Priests? If there were 90 of these bastards, people would know. To which Mike Rezendes replied – Maybe they do.
Yeah, they had their work cut out for them. As did the film makers. Now investigative reporting is a lot like police work – phone calls, knocking on people’s doors, interviews, chasing down leads which often turned into dead-ends. And then, repeat again, the next day. For Director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) – the task was to make this story, the story of the investigation and of the Boston Globe team working the story, into a tale of characters we cared about. The story needed life, and breadth along with the slog of the investigation.
The target was easy. They were about to set out on a road to bring down the city’s biggest institution – the Catholic Church. Long ago, we watched a similar story play out. It began with an overt crime, and before we knew what had happened, we went down a road that would lead into the White House Oval Office, and a President would resign.
That story was All The President’s Men, and Spotlight has the same DNA. Remarkably, the story is at once gripping, thrilling, and exciting, even though we knew going in that the story would be uncovered, investigated,and reported. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, would ultimately resign and then later be re-assigned by the Vatican to a job in Rome, and he’s still there.
For us, as we watch the film the question that looms before us seems so familiar – What did he know, and when did he know it?
For me, McCarthy and Singer have hit one out of the park with this film. I surely see an Oscar nom for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Direction. And they had plenty of support by the sterling cast.
Liev Schreiber plays Marty Baron, the Globe’s brand new Editor in Chief. Baron is the new boy in town. He’s not from Boston – he’s out of Miami and New York. And he’s not Catholic – in fact, he’s Jewish. So he was facing a below the surface notion that he was going to use Boston as a stepping stone to further his own career. But Schreiber played Baron as a low-key cool customer. He took a meeting with Cardinal Law early on and had to use all his powers to not laugh out loud when the Cardinal thanked him for coming to Boston and working with us (The Church). What chutzpah on the part of the Cardinal, who also gave the Jewish Baron a welcome to Boston gift = an official copy of the Church’s Catechism aka – an outline of the faith.
Baron would later say – We need to focus on the institution. Show me it came from the top down.
Michael Keaton played Spotlight Editor Walter Robinson. He was the cog at the center of the Spotlight wheel. His team didn’t need him to correct punctuation and grammar. His job was to keep every one focused and to have them not rush to judgement. A story is ready when it is ready, and not before. Here Keaton, like Schreiber kept his passion well hidden. His performance wasn’t soft-pedaling as the drive was still there – but it was not the least bit showy.
As Robinson would say to keep the team going – I wanna keep digging… especially since it was on his watch, about four or five years earlier, that Robinson, then the Metro editor buried a story with no follow-up about some bad priests.
Mike Rezendes, who would write the first of the articles, is played by Mark Ruffalo. And for the bottling up or internalizing done by Keaton and Schreiber, Ruffalo had the showiest performance of any one. He was part Al Pacino, part Vincent D’Onofrio, and part Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein – only with a lot more oomph.
When Rezendes said – They knew and they let it happen! It could’ve been you, it could’ve been me, it could’ve been any of us – it was an indelible moment. You could almost hear every heart in theater beating as he said this, And he was right – Robinson went to high School at Boston Catholic and he would later discover that a priest who had been at the school when he was there, was one of the guilty.
Matt Carroll was played by Brian d’Arcy James, was an integral part of the Spotlight team. His forte was data and statistical analysis. As portrayed by James, Carroll is more of the nuts and bolts guy. He’s the one holding down the fort, manning the phones, and doing most of the massive hunt for pertinent information buried in the data. Imagine how he felt when he uncovered the fact that one of the guilty priests, furloughed by the Church into a catch-all category of unassigned – lived around the corner from him.
Rachel McAdams played Sacha Pfeiffer, and it was she who handled the most sensitive of the interviews. She interviewed the victims, She was especially good at making them feel comfortable as well as drawing them out at the same time. When one young man was telling her his story, he walked her through it. And was as honest and forthcoming as he could be. Until he came to the part ...and then he molested me.
Pfeiffer then remarked that he would be have to be more specific. And he was. While this was a difficult moment for the victim to not only relive that moment, but to tell it to a female reporter, it was uncomfortable for the audience as well, but so finely tempered by how well McAdams did in softening the moment for this now adult victim.
There other noteworthy performances by three actors who portrayed lawyers. Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for the victims. I’m not insane, I’m not crazy. I’m experienced. They control everything.
Billy Crudup as Eric MacLeish, an outside counsel who handled many of the defense cases for the Archdiocese. He was a master of the stonewall disguised as lawyer/client confidentiality, and while he wore no mustache that could be twirled,
he was as dastardly a character as you will ever deal with in the movies.
Then there was Jamey Sheridan who played Jim Sullivan, an attorney who worked for the Archdiocese, He was also Walter Robinson’s friend. He will turn out to be a key character who was sitting at the exact nexus of the story.
The film was shot in and around Boston, and like the bank robbery film called The Town, this film showed off the real Boston – Fenway Park, a brief visit to both South Boston as well as Back Bay, the whole city – warts and all. The rest of the supporting characters – be they desk clerks , cops, court judges, or even the ‘bagman’ or maybe I should equate him more along the lines of Michael Clayton from the film of the same name. for the Archdiocese – played by Paul Guilfoyle were all excellent.
I’m going to call this film a must see – call it a primo Oscar Contender, and I’m going to give the film a five point zero rating. Have a look at the trailer: