Remember when newspapers were a thing? That’s the surprisingly nostalgic sense one gets from watching “Spotlight,” a movie about the journalistic expose of a real-life scandal of the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of dozens upon dozens of pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese.
Rather than focus on the crimes, all those countless instances of child sexual abuse, “Spotlight” shines its spotlight on the Boston Globe’s effort to uncover secrets the Church had been trying to bury for decades.
For its efforts, the Globe won a Pulitzer Prize, and this film might very well take home the Oscar (Granted, it’s still early, just mid-November, but right now it’s considered the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture).
“Spotlight” works more like a procedural than a melodrama. It’s not trying to wrench tears out of the audience. It’s more interested in portraying the step-by-step process of how journalists track down a complex story. Sure, that process can be mundane at times, but the movie also shows that journalists “pounding the pavement” can also be quite exciting.
“Spotlight” manages to be a very suspenseful film despite the fact we already know the outcome.
The large ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, but most of the credit for the film’s success must go to director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy. He takes an extremely complicated case, one with more than a dozen key characters, and presents it very clearly — piece by piece by piece. This clarity becomes more and more valuable as the story gets more complex.
The investigation begins with one abusive priest at six different parishes but, over the months, eventually mushrooms to include well over 50 clerics. As juicy a scandal as that might appear to be, that’s still not enough to convince the Globe’s editor-in-chief to go to print.
“We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests; practice and policy. Show me that the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me those same priests back at the parishes time and time again. Show me this is systemic, that this came from the top down.”
The Globe reporters, however, run into a metaphoric brick wall when it comes to implicating the Church. Here, a lawyer for some of the victims, played by Stanley Tucci, explains the difficulties to a Globe reporter, played by Mark Ruffalo.
Stanley Tucci: “I’ll pull out the 14 most damning docs and I attach them to my motion. And they prove everything about the church, about the bishops, about the law.”
Mark Ruffalo: “And it’s all public? So I could just walk into that courthouse right now and get those documents?”
ST: “No, you cannot because those documents are not there.”
MR: “But you just said that they’re public.”
ST: “I know I did, but this is Boston and the Church does not want them to be found. So they are not there.”
MR: “Are you telling me that the Catholic Church removed legal documents from that courthouse?”
ST: “I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced. Check the docket. They control everything.”
As each layer of the conspiracy is exposed, yet another layer of corruption comes to the fore.
To keep the congratulatory claps-on-the-back for the Boston Globe somewhat in check, McCarthy includes a scene that acknowledges that the newspaper could have, and should have, broken this story much earlier than it did. But given the decline of newspapers everywhere, it’s the Globe’s success rather than its failures that stand out.