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Film Review


The revelation that child sexual abuse was rife in the Catholic Church, and worse, concealed by many of the bishops, stunned everyone in the 1990's. The first case that attracted national attention was in 1985 when a Louisiana priest pled guilty to 11 counts of sexual abuse. There had been accusations before, but the children (usually boys) were simply not believed or ignored. The Louisiana trial began to crack open what can only be called a conspiracy of silence in which the children were the casualties. In 2001, The Boston Globe began a investigation of claims that some Boston priests were molesting children and being sheltered by Cardinal Law, the head of the Boston area church. Law was accused of having not only ignored the complaints but of attempting to conceal these crimes by making confidential settlements to some families and then transferring the predator priests to other parishes. The police were never notified. Often the transferred priests would continue their molestations at the next parish because most were unsupervised. Some priests were transferred repeatedly, victimizing children at every stop. After a year of intensive investigation by a team of reporters (named Spotlight), The Boston Globe concluded that at least 90 priests and brothers had victimized more than 1000 children over the past 30 years. But most damning was that the Church hierarchy knew of and concealed these crimes to protect the church.

The nation was horrified by these revelations. After the Globe's story broke, hundreds of other victims surfaced in the Boston area alone. And thousands in many other dioceses across America. A wave of lawsuits against the Church followed, with some dioceses forced to declare bankruptcy (Portland, Spokane, San Diego, Wilmington, Milwaukee, et al). The Boston diocese paid $100 million to settle most of the claims against the diocese, selling numerous properties for the funds. Cardinal Law resigned a year after the Globe's investigation was published, and the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize (2003) for the series. Since then investigations across the US and in foreign countries showed similar patterns of abuse and coverups. Child sexual abuse occurred in nearly all other denominations but the Church's requirement of celibacy undoubtedly made these crimes more likely.

Tom McCarthy is known primarily as an actor on television (The Wire, Law and Order, et al.) and on the big screen (Syriana, The Lovely Bones, et al.). However he is also a writer and director, clearly multi talented. His directing film credits include The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), both successful films. His latest film, Spotlight, looks closely at the efforts of a Boston Globe newspaper team that broke the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church. McCarthy not only directed but wrote (with Josh Singer) the screenplay, which closely follows the actual events and characters. The film opens with a revelatory pre-title scene in a police station house, where two cops are voicing doubts that anything will happen to a priest being questioned about sexual abuse. The priest confidently strides out of the police station with his attorney, and gets into a black Lincoln Continental with driver, and is driven away. This brief scene says much about the culture of silence in Boston that helped conceal these crimes for so many years.

Spotlight really begins inside the newsroom of The Boston Globe in early 2001 as a new managing editor is coming aboard. He is an outsider in every sense: from the NY Times, from Miami, doesn't like baseball, single and Jewish. Remember Boston was probably the most Catholic of all American big cities then, and perhaps now. An investigative team of three reporters headed by Walter Robinson, Robby, (played by Michael Keaton), have been together for quite some time and are savvy reporters. Most of the team, including Robby, are Boston, "born and bred", and of course all reared Catholic, although several are "lapsed". The reporters are a fiery Mike Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). Their performances are outstanding. A farewell party for the old editor is held, with awkward speeches, but everyone is concerned about possible personnel cuts. The new editor, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), is quiet but determined to make some changes. He asks the team what they are working on, but doesn't seem impressed with the focus of their current work. They also begin to discuss rumors of child sexual abuse in some of the Catholic parishes in Boston. Baron suggests they dig a bit deeper, and soon a number of secrets begin to spill out. Shortly afterward, Cardinal Law invites Baron to a brief chat, and pointedly says to Baron that "this city works best when its great institutions work together." Baron disagrees, saying that newspapers should be independent. Law, of course, is in a large magnificent office, clearly someone with real power. Baron's boss questions him about this line of investigation, saying that a huge percentage of the Globe's readers are Catholic, and may be offended by the reportage. But Baron is determined and his Spotlight team begins to uncover more and more damning documents and facts. The story is complex with a number of characters, but two key players include a zealous attorney (played by Stanley Tucci) who had been attempting to help the victims and their families for years before the paper broke the story. Another is the head of a small victim's support group, played by Neal Huff, whose accusations had been discounted by the paper years before. Both performances are masterful, and in fact there is not a weak player here in this large talented ensemble cast.

The story continues to unfold, with ugly secrets and revelations unearthed with dogged reporting work and not accepting no for an answer. At every turn, the film reminds us of the Church's power and influence in Boston. The pacing is fast, with tension continuing through the entire film. As we watch the reporters fan out into the neighborhoods to interview various people at home, nearly every scene has the backdrop of the neighborhood church. McCarthy wisely chose not to use children directly here. The accounts of their childhood sexual abuse are related as adults, and have all the more power for it. At the same time, the articulate well dressed attorneys and PR flacks representing the Church seem like the very face of evil. As one reporter points out, this is a city with a lot of good Germans, alluding to those that accepted Nazism. He is immediately told never to say that again. But the tone of the film is not sensationalist. It is understated, without long message speeches, with the victims' stories horrific. A survivor explains how the predator priest would unerringly pick particularly vulnerable children. One character says: "It may take a village to raise a child, but it take a village to abuse a child", a comment on those who looked the other way and did not want to know. The film also shows the toll on the reporters who interviewed the many victims. McAdams' character is at home after supper, trying to close the dishwasher, and nearly comes apart. The closing scenes of presses running, papers being bundled and squadrons of delivery trucks leaving the plant are strong and cathartic, reminiscent of 1930's films.

This is a very well done film about the reporting process, powerful and thoughtful. It speaks to problems still with us. Don't miss this. Spotlight is not a documentary, but does follow the actual story very closely, with no invented characters. It is real and accurate. A scrolled coda is riveting and sad. In fact the entire film is riveting and a convincing argument of the need for robust independent journalism. Think of the many wrong doings that investigative journalism has exposed. This type of reporting is endangered because it is expensive as it may take a team many many months. And may have serious economic effects on a newspaper, including loss of advertisers or subscribers. But without good journalism we will not long have a democracy. So, subscribe to a newspaper, even if online, and see this tremendous film on the big screen. It is clearly headed for the Academy Awards. Just opened at the Kabuki and the Metreon, the Regency 6 (San Rafael), the California (Berkeley) and in San Jose. Running time: 128 minutes.

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