Film and Book Reviews

Crusading journalists shine spotlight on abuse

FILMA sense of righteous anger thrums through the veins of this much-lauded American drama.

By Tim Kroenert

February 7 2016
Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ team of investigative journalists. The team revealed the extent of child sex abuse being covered up by the Catholic Church in Boston.

Jesuit priest and film critic Richard Leonard describes Spotlight as “one of the angriest films you will ever see”. It is true that a sense of righteous anger thrums through the veins of this much-lauded American drama, which portrays the investigation by a team of Boston Globe journalists into cases of child abuse committed by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese, and the cover-up of that abuse. This “spotlight” happens to fall on the Catholic Church, but its implications are far-reaching: the title refers to the journalists and the illuminating finger of truth that they hope to embody, but it also invokes the dark reality that lies beyond their particular pool of light; a reality that touches every institution, religious and otherwise, that has fostered or turned a blind eye to abusive cultures.

Regardless of the sensational subject matter, the film succeeds in its own right as an exploration of the MO of investigative journalists. One of my reviewer colleagues quipped that it might be retitled All the Bishop’s Men – a reference to the classic American film All the President’s Men, which details the processes undertaken by two Washington Post journalists who helped to uncover the Watergate scandal that undid President Richard Nixon. Spotlight is a riveting journalistic procedural in the same vein: it attends to the political and commercial preoccupations of the newsroom, as well as the day-to-day methodology of the investigation, as the journalists follow leads, interview and re-interview subjects, verify sources, pore through historical documents, negotiate legal red tape, and so on.

But importantly, Spotlight works also on an immediately human level. Much has been made of Mark Ruffalo’s turn as Mike Rezendes, astute reporter with an impeccable moral compass; of Michael Keaton, as the Jesuit educated Spotlight editor on a crusade; of Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, a journalist who knows that her pursuit of justice will break the heart of her Catholic grandmother; and of Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, the ethically upright lawyer willing to stand up to the politically and socially influential Church. Equally compelling though are the appearances by relatively unknown actors, who serve as avatars for those who were betrayed by the Church and will no longer be silent. In the end it is not moral abstractions but vulnerable and exploited human beings that lie at the heart of the Boston scandal, and church child abuse scandals in general.