Film Review: Spotlight cuts deep

The revelation of truth is always shocking, especially in relation to a story involving the systematic cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church.

Directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight tells the story of a group of Boston Globe Journalists who, as part of the Spotlight team, exposed the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of incidents of pedophilia in Boston and ultimately the world.

The film opens with the scene of a policeman walking down the corridor of a Boston Police department in 1976 to reveal Father John Geoghan, a priest, has been arrested for molesting more than 80 young boys, only to be released to the Archdiocese in secret.

Fast forward to 2001 where we are introduced to Spotlight, an investigative journalism team lead by editor Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and made up of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’arcy James) who are sent to research abuse allegations involving the Catholic Church.

It is revealed by one of the victims that the story was previously published in The Phoenix, a defunct newspaper with little-to-no readership resulting in a disabling inability to act. The exposition of truth depends on a reliable, well-read news source such as The Globe. Power and influence of news is dependent on audience reach and readership in order to raise awareness.

The Spotlight team interview more victims of abuse, taking statements where they speak about their childhood experiences in which they were troubled, vulnerable kids who were ‘preyed upon’ (as opposed to prayed upon) by priests who have a sense of omnipotence granted to them because of their status. One victim recalls the power imbalance between himself as a child and the priest who abused him, remembering how he regarded the abuser like god, ‘God speaks to you… how do you say no to God?’

There is no denying the truth words have and the respect afforded to them in a story as sensitive as this. The Spotlight team’s dedication to their story is testament to the impact of overwhelming injustice they uncover; they are tenacious and thorough in seeking the truth before publishing the horrifying allegations.

The camera follows the action with characters moving when in conversation to evoke the fast paced tone appropriate to a news office. Dialogue is delivered in quick beats enhancing the overall tension and urgency particularly when juxtaposed with rapid cuts and the use of montage composed of shots of news clippings, filing cabinets, microfilm and binders when paired with Howard Shore’s hauntingly emotive soundtrack.

Within the church a priest delivers a sermon addressing his congregation with, ‘Knowledge is one thing; Faith is another’, informing them of how he fears what ‘the world wide web’ will expose; publicly accessible knowledge has the potential to shed doubt on even his own character. There will be no pulpit to hide behind, no veil or covering, no purification or cleanse for the accused to hide their shame.

There are two competing ‘truths’ presented in this film; the unbiased truth of news journalism which seeks to present its readers with facts untainted by influence or reputation and the truth associated with religion and faith.

There is no confrontation no dramatic reenactment of abuse or scenes of confrontation but rather McCarthy chooses to present us with the slow and laborious process involved in journalistic writing, from meticulously gathering information, researching and fact-checking.

At times the film feels dull. We witness the endless hours of research alongside images of domesticity; sipping of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, beard scratching, and the loading of a dishwasher. Despite these varied and ordinary images, their sense of responsibility pervades every facet of their day as they move closer towards uncovering the truth.

There is much impact in the intensity of this film of which you don’t see coming. Spotlight manages to build momentum as it advances towards the climax, a rush of intense emotion equivalent to someone unexpectedly punching you in the face.

You feel your moral compass quiver as you ponder Mitchell Garabedian’s (Stanley Tucci) statement, ‘If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.’

The culture of secrecy which lead to the cover-up of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is almost an unspoken doctrine as high ranking priests such as Cardinal Law knew about the incidents of pedophilia yet choose to turn a blind eye.

‘Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on, and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.’ Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) The Globe’s new editor, tells his team in the wake of the news of church sexual abuse.

The impact of this story for the journalists involved is not only professional but also personal; their views on religion change, their faith in community is shattered, and many of them stop believing or going to church as a consequence of hearing the truth of the scandal.

Spotlight isn’t just a story about journalists exposing a cover-up of a church sexual abuse, it’s about accountability, truth, and the upheaval of all parties involved, even the media or in this case the Spotlight team who, being of journalistic integrity perform their jobs with utmost professionalism but still can’t help but be affected by the issue presented. A story like this forever changes public perception of organised religion and the scars it leaves upon its victims also cut deep within society.

Spotlight is released on 28 January 2016



Review by Addy Fong.