Tom McCarthy’s drama, born of reality, is quietly understated, no-frills filmmaking; a compelling unspooling of the Boston Globe’s investigation into historic child abuse by the Catholic Church. Eschewing thriller conventions, “you have no idea how high up this goes” clichés and the overdramatising of material, including egregious sentimentality, Spotlight, referring to the investigative quartet on the case, grips with matter-of-fact horror and the gradual accruing of detail. A fine cast, spearheaded by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, add a low-key human dimension; actors canny enough to realise that too much earnestness, over emoting or playing a scene for prestige, would undermine the story’s serious and at times ugly underpinning. As if to underline the film’s reportage manifesto, it’s all scored using that great signifier of real world sobriety, the piano. This is not entertainment, do you understand?
So with that out of the way we’re able to go deep into the heart of the matter, the church’s diocese of degeneracy, where, according to one researcher consulted by the team, an estimated 6% of priests will be sex offenders. In Boston, a catholic city, with many churches overlooking playgrounds, that’s 90 priests in the frame. As the film’s investigators knock on doors and parry bribes and veiled threats from church officials, it becomes clear that shocking figure isn’t pessimistic. “How do you say no to God?” asks one shaky victim, raped aged 11, and the answer, in a city built on faith, appears to be ‘you can’t’. Worse, the offenders, as outlined in one shocking scene in which McAdams asks a timid looking priest to confess, only to hear him admit it without shame, but claim it was “just fooling around” unlike his own childhood rape, appear as damaged as their victims; just the latest generation of abusers within an institution that accepts warped sexuality as a necessary by-product of its repressive conditioning.
To McCarthy’s credit, what could have been, well, pious, is an even-handed retelling of a terrible story. Spotlight acknowledges the hard work and diligence of a team of outsiders who shone their torch on an established abuse racket that included judicial collusion, but it’s a film without heroes. The Globe, who researched the exposé, broke the story many years after been sent tell-all accounts from victims, and the movie acknowledges that journalists were wilfully blind to the scale of the scandal, including those who’d later work on the titular team.
“It’s like everyone knows the story”, says Ruffalo, in sight of the Globe’s headquarters, only to be told, “everyone except us”. Yes, it was the worst kept secret in the world, it seems, but witnesses, from former victims to court officials to beat cops, withered in the shadow of the local church. The movie revels in the juicy irony that it took a Jew, new editor Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber) for everyone to get their shovels out and start digging. Late justice for over a 1,000 victims then, but in Spotlight the better-late-than-never investigation gets its due, along with the brave souls that held out while the people of Boston and elsewhere looked the other way.