The Tom McCarthy-directed movie “Spotlight” makes me remember why I wanted to become a reporter after I graduated from high school. I did, in fact, go off to the University of Iowa on a Ferner/Hearst Journalism Scholarship. I had visions of becoming a female investigative reporter like Rachel Adams’ character of Sacha Pfeiffer in this compelling drama about how a team of four reporters known as “Spotlight,” working as a special investigative unit within the Boston Globe newspaper, broke wide open the decades-old story of pedophiles in the Catholic priesthood. Not everyone in predominantly Catholic Boston appreciated their efforts, least of all the Catholic Church.
At the conclusion of the film, the screen is filled with three screens of the names of cities where pedophile priests have been “outed.” I noticed Davenport and Dubuque among those cities scrolling by. I seem to remember that one of those Dioceses declared bankruptcy in the wake of the punitive damages awarded victims by the courts.
In 2002 over 600 stories were published about the pedophile priests just in Boston (87 is the number there) and, ultimately, 249 priests who had molested over 1,000 survivors were found guilty in courts of law. This was, indeed, a story on the scale of that icon of investigative reporting, “All the President’s Men.”
The cast here is uniformly great. In fact, the ensemble won a Gotham award and it was named the Audience Favorite at the recent Chicago Film Festival I covered. To name just the familiar faces: Mark Ruffalo (who may well score an Oscar nod for his part as Mike Rezendes), Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Liev Schreiber as the new Jewish editor from Miami, Marty Baron, John Slattery (“Mad Men”) as Ben Bradlee Jr., Stanley Tucci (“The Hunger Games”) as lawyer Mitchel Garabedian, Billy Crudup as lawyer Eric Macleish and Jamey Sheridan as public defender Jim Sullivan.
The film has the unenviable task of making the tough work of backgrounding the news (a class I once took at the University of Iowa) and interviewing subjects seem riveting, when it is more often a task that takes place in a room full of filing cabinets and computer terminals. Yet it succeeds.
A disembodied voice that sounds so much like character actor Richard Jenkins (“Six Feet Under”) that, if it isn’t him, it should be, gives us some background on pedophiles in the priesthood. The voice belongs to a psycho-therapist who works with pedophile priests in a treatment center. He tells the investigative quartet that only about 50% of priests honor their vow of celibacy. The Jenkins-sound-alike voice (I could not find the name of the person who is heard on the phone in the credits) tells the team that 6% of priests act out sexually with minors. If Boston has 1,500 priests (as it did at that time in the seventies), 90 would be the 6% figure. (The team finds 87). He says, “Pedophiles are a billion-dollar liability” to the church, but attorney Billy Crudup later lays out the liability, per case: $20,000 limit for molesting a child with a 3-year statue of limitations. In other words, the deck is stacked in favor of the molesters.
With lines (scripted by Director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer) like, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” and “Knowledge is one thing; faith is another,” the audience understands the bind the Boston-based newspaper is facing in a town so thoroughly Catholic that they seem to control everything. A disgusted survivor who has formed a therapy group called S.N.A.P. for those abused by priests puts it bluntly: “What this is is priests using the collar to rape kids.” Young boys are more often the targets, because a young boy, embarrassed, is less likely to reveal the molestation, but girls were not immune. One family had 7 children molested by the local clerics.
Probably the most intense acting is turned in by Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes because he has a great scene opposite Michael Keaton as is boss, where he is urging that action be taken faster. However, it is difficult to single out one outstanding member of a cast this good in a movie this good. Look for this one to get lots of Oscar nods on February 28th.