Bad Barrels & Bystanders: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”

Few movies have portrayed journalism with such grounded realism and deep reverence as 2015 Academy Award winner Spotlight.  Though director Tom McCarthy paints a rather unglamorous portrait of the profession (the majority of reporting occurs either in the Boston Globe’s dreary manila beige offices or dimly lit basements haunted by the stench of dead rats), it’s clear he possesses a worshipful esteem for the occupation.  Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, Spotlight is a “tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” endlessly fascinated with the details of what today has become a dying craft: the poring over records, the digging up leads, the sifting through clips.  But this film is not simply for journalists who wistfully remember the days when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep (or longingly recall the whir of the printing press)- it’s for anyone who believes in the tremendous power of a few individuals to have a far-reaching impact.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead once said.  This subtly gripping tale proves true this sentiment.

spotlight division

A first-rate newsroom drama based on real life events, Spotlight documents the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.  The year is 2001: the traditional newspaper has only just begun to compete with the internet but local publications like the Boston Globe are struggling to maintain their readership.  To boost sales and make their paper more relevant, the Globe brings in new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an unmarried man of the Jewish faith.  “What are you reading?” Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of Spotlight, the paper’s investigative division, asks when they meet for a business meeting over dinner and drinks.  “The Curse of the Bambino but, to be honest,” Baron confesses, “I’m not much of a baseball fan.”  In a predominantly Catholic city that devours peanuts at Red Sox games, Baron is an outsider to say the least.  But it is his status as newcomer that makes him willing to take on Boston’s mightiest, most formidable adversary: the Archdiocese.  After reading that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, potentially knew priest John Geoghan was molesting local children, Baron urges Spotlight to investigate.  

An ensemble of fine actors compose the Spotlight team: tough guy Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) typifies the determined persistence of the classic reporter as he tirelessly tracks down leads, sneaking into offices uninvited and enduring door after door slammed in his face.  Fellow staff writer Sacha Pfeiffer (a warm performance by Rachel McAdams) interviews victims while diligent reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) discovers whenever a priest was accused of abusing a child, the Archdiocese would officially say he was on “sick leave” and send him to a treatment center only to reassign him to another parish where he would surely resume his predatory ways.

spotlight

As the group of journalists delve deeper, they begin to realize the sheer scope of what they’ve stumbled upon: the systematic abuse of children isn’t just limited to Boston-it goes to the heart of the Vatican itself.  What makes such rampant horror possible?  Creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiment Phillip Zambardo would argue these atrocities weren’t perpetrated by a few “bad apples” but the result of a bad barrel.  Lack of oversight, a complete absence of accountability: the Catholic Church created a precarious situation in which priests faced no repercussions for their actions and could therefore be seduced into abusing their power in the most despicable ways.  “When you’re from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” survivor and impassioned victims advocate Phil Saviano explains, “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal.  When he asks you to collect the hymnals, you feel special.  It’s like God asking for your help.”  

What’s chillingly disturbing about the Catholic Church scandal is not only the ways in which so-called “men of God” use the collar to prey on the helpless and vulnerable but the countless legal, political, and social institutions complicit in the cover up.  After all, if the abominable abuse of children was happening on such a grand scale, how did nobody know?  The Boston Globe comes to estimate there are nearly 90 offending priests in Boston alone.  By discreetly settling these abuse cases out of court, lawyers like handsome, smooth-talking Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) keep the Church’s disgraceful secrets hidden from public view (not to mention make a small fortune for themselves).  On a larger scale, police departments perpetuate the abuse by releasing offenders like Geoghan back into the hands of the Archdiocese rather than follow standard protocol and press criminal charges.  Even the Globe itself, we learn, is partly responsible.  The paper had been tipped to the existence of a scandal as far back as 1993 but turned down the opportunity to cover the story.  Why?  For the same reason families of victims didn’t speak out- they were afraid of taking on an organization as influential as the Archdiocese. 

The press, lawyers, police: all wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the conspiracy of silence that enables such monstrosities to continue.  Though Spotlight never indulges in the speechifying or grand-standing typical of a Hollywood drama of this material, it unwaveringly maintains a stance that is moral: not only are the perpetrators themselves culpable- loathsome men like Geoghan and their superiors like Cardinal Law- but, through our inaction, we bystanders are equally at fault.  As lawyer Garbedian sharply notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

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