“Spotlight” – A heartfelt tribute that seeks meanings beyond scandal

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Spotlight” is the wretched title of one of the best movies of the year.

It’s possible the filmmakers chose it because it serves a double purpose. Not only does it convey darkness illuminated, but it’s also the name of a small investigative team at The Boston Globe.

Spotlight, trailer

‘Spotlight’ recounts the Boston Globe investigation that revealed the Catholic Church’s role in covering up child abuse. Credit: teasertrailer.com

As in, the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for its expose of the Catholic Church’s practice of protecting pedophile priests – either by politely looking the other way or, when that was no longer possible, by shifting them from parish to parish.

However, while it pulls no punches, the movie is less about the sins of the Church than it is a heartfelt and superbly crafted-tribute to the sort of old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism that’s rarely practiced anymore.  Thus “Spotlight” can also be taken as an oblique eulogy – for print in general and newspapers in particular.

There once was a time – really, not even so very long ago – when an investigative reporter actually had to investigate. That is, you couldn’t get the story by googling “pedophile priests” on the Internet.

Perhaps it’s all too fitting that “Spotlight” begins with a retirement party for Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), a beloved managing editor (oh, the dozens of insider jokes to be made…). His replacement, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), isn’t from Boston.  He’s never heard of the Curse of the Bambino. He’s still learning the difference between Back Bay and Beacon Hill. He is, as one character says, “An unmarried man of the Jewish faith who doesn’t like baseball.”

And he asks questions.  Such as: What’s this about local priests having sexually abused something like 80 kids?  This strikes him as an important story.

He hands it to the elite Spotlight team, led by Michael Keaton.  He is Catholic. So are all his reporters: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James.  Their faith – some are lapsed, some are not, some just going through the motions to please loved ones – isn’t a conflict-of-interest obstacle; rather, it’s an indication of how Boston is, in its way, as much of a company town as D.C. or L.A. But instead of politics or Hollywood, the corridors of power are shaped by the Church.

Spotlight, 1A

The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for uncovering the Catholic Church’s role in covering up child abuse. Credit: dailymail.co.uk

The Globe’s readership is 53 percent Catholic. Many of the Globe’s power elite regularly play golf with the Church’s higher-ups. Perhaps most importantly, as a slick lawyer (Billy Crudup) points out, “The Church thinks in centuries. Do you think the Globe has the resources to take that on?”

We watch as the Spotlight unit takes that challenge. There are musty archives to be gone through, doors to be knocked on, disheartening discoveries to be made as to how much the Globe itself may have been complicit in the cover-up.

“Spotlight” can’t help but evoke comparisons with “All the President’s Men.” Not just in its depiction of what journalists used to do as a matter of course, but also in its whittling the story down to its essentials.  Just as Watergate was about a lot more than some low-level functionaries who fumble a break-in, the Spotlight team is uncovering something systemic – something that goes beyond, as someone says, “a few bad apples.”

The performances – and this is a large cast – are impeccable. Ruffalo is the one being groomed for an Oscar nomination, but Keaton is the film’s itchy, uncompromising motor. He gets exceptional support from the aforementioned McAdams and d’Arcy James. But then, there’s also Schreiber. And Crudup. And Sheridan (who by the way, got his start at the Alliance). And Stanley Tucci as an “outsider” attorney.

“Spotlight” may be the most effective when it casts about for meaning beyond just the particulars of the scandal.  In the midst of the investigation, Sheridan reminds Keaton that Schreiber isn’t planning to become part of the fabric of Boston.  He’s going to move on to…New York…Chicago…? But where – if anywhere – can Keaton go?

Director Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the script, knows exactly what he’s doing. Even his throw-aways make a point. For example, note the billboard looming over the Globe’s parking lot. It reads, “AOL Anywhere.”

The times they are….

Local note: When the movie is over, there’s a long list of cities where abuse occurred. One of them is Marietta.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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