Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Original Boston Globe Spotlight team of Michael Rezendes, Ben Bradlee Jr., Sacha Pfeiffer, Walter Robinson, Martin Baron and Matt Carroll are seen at the film premiere

SPOTLIGHT              B+                  
USA  (128 mi)  2015  d:  Tom McCarthy                   Official Site

This strikes me as an essential story for a local paper.
—Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber)

While one of the leading candidates for the Academy’s pick for Best Picture, this is a fairly conventional, relatively mainstream film that prides itself for its social significance, and while largely understated throughout, without any big dramatic moments, it’s the kind of film that tends to gain momentum heading into Oscar season with people congratulating themselves for endorsing this picture, as if that eases their conscience and somehow makes them feel like they’re better people.  Much like viewers of Selma (2015) or Straight Outta Compton (2015), simply attending a film is often seen as a substitute for actual commitment to progressive social values, as if that act alone is working towards building better race relations.  The topic of discussion is the intensive 2001 Boston Globe journalistic investigation of a massive child sex abuse scandal by multiple Catholic priests along with a systemic cover-up of these crimes by the local Church hierarchy, including the Bishop, who knew what was happening all along but did little to protect the young and the innocent from these known sexual predators.   Jumping right into the action, the film opens with an earlier scene from the 90’s where a boy and his abusing priest are seen gathered with the child’s parents at a police station, where no charges are filed as the Bishop can be seen consoling the family before escorting the priest into an awaiting car that speeds away where the offending priest will simply be relocated anonymously to another parish.  Shown with little fanfare, it’s all swept under the rug in the blink of an eye with few traces left behind.  Jump ahead to early 2001, where newspapers are under threat from the Internet which is already cutting into their readership and classified ads, as they’re bringing in a new editor at the Boston Globe with an established reputation for making cuts, where the newspaper business itself is under fire, as evidenced by a giant AOL billboard seen just outside the Globe offices.   

Quickly introducing the featured players, they include new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a straightlaced outsider arriving from Miami who’s curiously reading The Curse of the Bambino written by a Globe sports writer to familiarize himself with Boston, while the rest are all locals, including deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father was the executive editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s, and the Spotlight team, a group of three writers working in the basement who can devote more time to investigating a series of stories that may be researched for months before a single article is printed.  The Spotlight editor is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), while his three reporters are Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Marty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).  All are seen in a way we haven’t seen before, as Keaton has literally resurrected his career after the success of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), while Ruffalo is more hyper, a kind of obsessed, detail-oriented guy who is on the job literally every second that he’s awake, who doesn’t have time to “decorate” his grungy apartment, McAdams has never looked “less” sensuous, removing any hint of sex appeal, yet she is entirely focused upon getting the story, and James successfully makes the transition from live theater to movies.  The story is largely advanced through a succession of connecting scenes with quick dialogue, where there’s a mechanism behind this madness, as the audience is never force-fed material, but has to pick it up as it swiftly moves along, with the Spotlight team continually in search of more to the story, where the entire film is a tribute to the art of journalism and digging behind the stories, uncovering new leads, developing credible sources, where there is simply no time for tributes or adulation, though this team and the mammoth series of articles they wrote eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2003, Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church.

Written by Josh Singer and the director Tom McCarthy, it’s important to note that the director was once an altar boy in New Provincetown, New Jersey, attending Boston College High School, an institution that itself became embroiled in the scandal, a Jesuit school located directly across from the Boston Globe offices, where in the film Robby is one of the significant alumnus, as are several of the important players involved.  At least initially, Baron suggests the Spotlight team follow up on a local story written by Globe columnist Eileen McNamara where one former priest, John Geoghan, was alleged to have molested many children years ago.  Within a matter of days, the investigative team discovered Geoghan was only one of a large number of priests who sexually molested children only to be reassigned to a different parish.  Rezendes finds a lead in Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an underfunded but perpetual workaholic attorney representing victims who is under gag orders not to release names or information, but nonetheless Rezendes hounds him for help on the case while also discovering Richard Snipe (never seen, but heard as the voice of Richard Jenkins on the phone), a former Benedictine priest of 18-years who is now a trained psychologist conducting a 25-year study of the sexual practices of supposedly celibate Roman Catholic priests (the findings were published in 1990), only to discover that nearly 6% were known to have sexual abuse deviations.  Both Garabedian and Snipe were thoroughly discredited by the Catholic Church, where people looked upon their information with skepticism, refusing to believe this could possibly be true, but by the time they found 13 wayward priests, they thought that was the extent of the horror, only to discover that was just the tip of the iceberg, as the 6% indicator from the study would suggest a number closer to 100.  Pfeiffer on the other hand followed up on the victims, discovering there was a support group in place called SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, founded by Barbara Blaine, a resident of Toledo, Ohio who was herself sexually abused by a priest from junior high through high school (1969 – 1974), finally able to reveal the truth in 1989 when she founded the organization, exposing predators and those who shield them while helping to protect those that have been sexually abused, claiming 12,000 members in 56 different countries. 

Part of the ironic beauty of the film is that it takes place in Boston, which is nearly 50% Catholic, the largest consolidation of Catholics anywhere in the United States, yet the city has a small-town feel to it, as nearly everything falls under the umbrella of the church, whose influence reaches into the fabric of close-knit communities, defining the character, helping provide a moral authority and an example of benevolence that no one has questioned, yet one by one we see discredited witnesses who are psychologically shattered by their experiences, partly because the world around them simply refuses to accept the accusations that the church played any role in their mental deterioration, preferring to think they are psychologically damaged individuals that need mental health treatment to overcome their delusions.  As we see the reporters pound the pavement and go door to door, or see victims as they slink through the streets anonymously, the image of church spires looms over everything, an ominous presence sending a somber message that engulfs the world below with its omnipresent influence.  When Marty Barron meets Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) as a courtesy call, the Cardinal lectures the newcomer about his former work in the Civil Rights movement, inferring the church is part of the progressive struggle for human rights, suggesting the giant institutions of the church and the newspaper should work hand in hand, that everyone would be better served.  Barron has to hold his ethical ground, claiming newspapers must stand alone.  It is therefore no accident when Baron’s name is left off the invite list of a Catholic Charities social event, as he’s considered a Jewish transplant from Florida, already positioned by the church as an interloper, an excluded outsider who is “not one of us.”  One of the more conflicted characters in the film is a smooth-talking yet creepy Archdiocese lawyer named Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) who helps resolve settlements for abuse victims that the church hopes will just disappear and remain silenced, claiming he fed material to the newspaper several years back, but nothing became of it, suggesting the paper itself censored the story, another thought that makes the viewers shudder, though eventually, through much prodding, he does confirm that the number of priests involved in settlements is closer to 100.

The structure of the film is building mounting tension as sequence by sequence information slowly accumulates, turning into a mechanized, procedural film that goes on for months, sidetracked by a humongous incident known as 9/11, where the story is advanced by asking questions through interviews, phone calls, digging into the newspaper’s archives, seeking out lost files, where there are plenty of opportunities for the investigation to derail.  Lost in all the ballyhooed interest is just how old-fashioned and out of date this picture is, how it could not have happened in the present age of social media where every tidbit of information becomes instant news, as we have instead become so enraptured by the prisoner-of-the-moment mentality where news leaks might have allowed the church to refute and distort the facts in public, shifting the focus elsewhere, where the precision of the film plays out like a greatest hits montage from yesteryear.  Certainly part of the underlying tension is watching the psychological toll the story takes out of each member of the Spotlight team, as all are themselves Catholics, where they view the world a little differently afterwards, where Carroll discovers a safe house for disgraced priests less than a block from his home, Pfeiffer has to break her grandmother’s heart, a woman who attends mass regularly, with the release of the news, Rezendes grows even more obsessed with a growing fear about the impact the church has on young unsuspecting kids, while Robby has to challenge some of the strongest bonds of friendship in pursuit of the story, including a strong turn from Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, a boyhood friend that works as an attorney representing the church who is reluctant to provide details.  The reporters discover 84 different lawsuits filed against Father Geoghan alone in his 30-year career, all of which were protected by a superior court confidentiality order, while relevant documents in the cases are simply missing from court records and could not be found.  The Globe decides to challenge the confidentiality order, which amounts to some 10,000 pages of church documents, claiming the public interest outweighs the church’s desire for privacy, and while awaiting the outcome, discovers the church’s own publications that list the assignment of every single priest, including names and addresses, as well as those who have been removed from active service, identified with the notations placed on sick leave, reassigned, or in between assignments.  Working from this list, reminiscent of the meticulous detail provided by the Nazi’s documenting the efficiency of their train scheduling during the Holocaust, the reporters are able to corroborate names given to them by in-person victim testimony, where the extensive scope of their investigation begins to take shape, as they have not only the names of sexually abusive priests, the names of their victims, but proof the offending priests had knowingly been reassigned, proving Cardinal Law and church officials were aware of these allegations for decades but did nothing to stop priests from preying upon new victims.  When the story finally runs, the 13 original priests found guilty of sexual abuse expands to 249 priests and more than 1000 victims, where the impact of the coverage generated a flurry of more victims coming forward, with more than 670 priests around the world exposed publicly.  In 2003, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston settled a group case of 552 victims for $85 million dollars.  A flood of abuse claims were filed in cities across the country and in dioceses across Europe, with five dioceses in America receiving bankruptcy protection, while eight others went bankrupt.  By 2012, the number of priests accused of sex abuse had risen to 3700, where nearly all were criminally charged, most were convicted and served time in prison.  More than 3000 lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Church in the United States, where the estimated payout from settlements of sex abuse cases from 1950 to 2012 has been more than $3 billion dollars.   

One of the significant distinctions learned afterwards is that most priests are not pedophiles, as they are often labeled, as the general public tends to misuse the term for all children under the age of consent.  Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder defined by a persistent sexual attraction to prepubescent children.  As the large majority of the church sex abuse victims were aged 10 to 17, mostly boys, studies showed the offending priests were motivated less by a psychiatric disorder and more by an abuse of power, as they tended to prey upon the weaknesses of either sex, whoever happened to be the most vulnerable (often the most economically disadvantaged), using their power and church authority to invade the sexual innocence of their victims, many of whom acknowledged they felt priests represented the voice of God.  According to an independent John Jay Report in 2004 commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, studying the period from 1950 through 2002, 11,000 allegations were made against 4,392 priests in the United States, with most of the victims of this sex abuse scandal in early puberty to late adolescence, where the term for that is ephebophilia, where there is currently no psychiatric disorder listed for a sexual attraction to this age group.

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