In the Name of Truth

Film review: Spotlight (Director: Tom McCarthy)

By Sascha Krieger

In 2001, Martin Baron arrived in Boston. The renowned journalist who had been executive editor of the Miami Herald, had just been appointed to the same position at the Boston Globe, one of America’s leading newspapers. Stumbling upon a column on the case of a priest who had molested children over many years, he asks the paper’s investigative team Spotlight to look into the matter. Reluctantly, they do. At the end of the investigation, almost 250 Boston priests were exposed, along with a systemic campaign of covering up which involved out of court settlements, the systematic moving around of protests and collusion from all major institutions in the city. The case kicked off a global series of discoveries about systematic child abuse and cover up mechanisms leading straight to the Vatican. Boston’s archbishop Cardinal Law had to step down only to receive a lucrative job in Rome.

© Paramount

© Paramount

Tom McCarthy’s film tells the story of Spotlight’s investigation from its start to its first cover story in 2002, when the team reported on almost 90 cases, the tip of the iceberg. In its early scenes, Spotlight deftly indicates the close-knot, church-dominated society Boston used to be: in a revealing meeting between Baron (a wonderfully low-key performance by Liev Schreiber) and Law, in the reluctance of Spotlight chief „Robby“ Robinson (Michael Keaton as a self-assured reporter more and more shaken by doubts turning into a stubborn fighter for truth), a Bostonian grown up in a community with whose players he is well-connected, in the threatening friendliness of those upholding the status quo. The film remains close to the reporters among whom Michael Rezendes stands out. Mark Ruffalo plays him with an angry edge and a relentless curiosity that mirror the confusion and existential threat to certainties long-held which were a result of the revelations. The film’s focus is on the step by step uncovering of the story and the reporter’s responses to them. Huge the shock when it’s revealed there my be as many as 13 priests involved, numbing the realisation that the real numbers are much, much higher.

The viewer is by the side of the team, they take us along, what they uncover we do, so their response is ours. Spotlight was always bound to elicit comparisons with Alan J. Pakula’s seminal Watergate film All the President’s Men and it holds up well. The basic structure is the same and so is the film’s focus. As we sat open-mouthed about how gradually a burglary turned into a vast government conspiracy, we are now shocked – despite the fact that as with the earlier film the basic facts are by now well-known – at how we move from an individual abuse case to a web of cover-ups and silence that involves everybody from the justice system to the city to the police. It is among the film’s strengths that the role of the Globe itself is not left out: for years, the paper ignored any indications that there might be a bigger problem, even „Robby“ himself once discarded evidence to the contrary. The scandal is the direct result of a community in which all institutions work together to uphold the status quo and in which the church is regarded not only as essential for keeping things going but even as the centerpiece of it all. An institution such as the Globe is supposed to be – and has long been – part of the game as Law clearly tells Baron.

Spotlight eschews the spectacular. It unfolds quietly in rather unattractive, coldly lit interiors, there is no glamour to the quiet heroism of a much-maligned profession. Apart from a harrowing emotional outburst by Ruffalo’s character, the tone is subdued, matter of fact, professional. There are no climactic confrontations, no secret meetings, no scenes portraying the workings of the powerful. We just watch a group of journalists doing their job. And in doing so we learn how much  we as a society need this powerful corrective, need their open eye – and how little we ourselves should rely on those who keep telling you that everything is fine. It does something that seems very old-fashioned: it claims that there is such a thing as truth and that if you try hard enough it can be uncovered. Spotlight might not be the year’s most innovative film, but its is one of the most powerful, moving and important ones.

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