Spotlight (2015)

Saw this last night at the Kabuki and since there wasn’t a thread wanted to share some thoughts. There are some spoilers here.

The basis of the movie is the journalistic uncovering of the child-molestation coverup in the Catholic church of Boston back in 2001-2 and how it came about. It centers on the “Spotlight” special investigative team of the Boston Globe writers/editors and associated newspaper-people that worked many hours and fought many battles to pull this all together. Spotlight features a bang-bang cast of actors doing great work in this movie: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, along with some good stuff from Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan.

Spotlight goes very little into background or introductory material, but delves head-first very quickly after Schreiber, a Jewish editor from other publications within the organization (Miami and before that New York) is brought in to oversee aspects of the Globe, potentially cut costs and one would think be the annoying thorn in everyone’s side as businessman-type aspect of evil capitalistic journalism. The nice thing is that this is very quickly disabused; though it is a bit of a cliche plot red herring that goes nowhere (there is another one of these later). During one of the first editorial meetings he discusses a column written by a staffer regarding the trial of a priest who abused children, and noted that there was absolutely no follow-up and wanted to see about doing more about the topic.

Slattery, who plays Ben Bradley Jr., is skeptical as Keaton’s Spotlight team is asked to do some digging. The Spotlight team doesn’t normally get tasked–they pick the topics and spend however long they want working them. But Keaton agrees and the story really takes off. This leads to the other potential red herring. Multiple times throughout the movie there are constant implications that the Boston Globe covered up or ignored previous stories regarding abusive priests, or at the very least, buried them and moved on. Multiple characters state they sent the Globe tons of info years in the past and nothing ever happened. The script tags Slattery as potentially someone who kind of the person who is quashing all of this stuff: first he doesn’t even want to go with the story, wants to get the Spotlight team off of it, talks to various people and is alarmed at the prospect that there could be even more priests than the original 13 (not because there are more but because they have to vet all of it). The plot device starts to become obvious: Slattery is covering up for the church, along with everyone else in the city (see the next paragraph). But… it doesn’t transpire that way at all.

Instead of some devious shenanigans with the church, the Globe didn’t follow up because of the biggest sin of all: people in Boston consciously or subconsciously just ignored the allegations/accusations/trials, put them aside, didn’t want to believe them, or sweep them under the rug. Constantly people ask, “What took you so long?” The movie implies that the city, Boston being Boston, didn’t want to know. Which is to say: the people, the church, the institutions deigned to inform and protect; nobody. That’s the ultimate sin being uncovered in Spotlight.

Whether I or you agree with this is of course the main question. I’m not a Boston person and have never even been there, so I can’t really say one way or another. It’s a pretty damning accusation, however, and one bound to cause controversy.

Other things in this movie: a wasn’t a fan of Ruffalo’s weird facial twitches. I don’t think it’s a subconscious, natural thing, and if he has done it in other movies, it doesn’t seem as noticeable as in this movie, which is really noticeable and is kinda bothersome. Maybe he’s imitating the real life writer, I dunno. A third red herring in this movie is that the Catholic church sees everything, knows everything, is all powerful, etc. If this was a conspiracy movie about anything else, the next thing you’d expect a character to say would be something like, “and they can make you disappear.” They never say this, but it’s like… that one line is missing but it’s in the back of your mind. But they never really follow up with that either–the church just makes things a little difficult, but the characters seem to easily overcome all of this. Spotlight also throws a lot of names and cases at you extremely quickly; if you have a bad memory or have Memento disease, this may be a problem, because it all ties together in some form or fashion. And as I said earlier, there’s not a lot of introduction at the beginning.

All in all, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking movie, and it pretty much does what you think it’s going to ask: how did this happen for so long and who was responsible for it? Whether or not this is an Oscar contender… well just watching it without seeing some other potentials, I would say no, but would still say it’s a pretty decent movie.

— Alan

I’ve seen this movie twice at this point and I would disagree a bit with the first post. For me, this is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time and on my personal scale, outdoes All The President’s Men in some ways. This movie has no cinematic frills, it’s a lean procedural that - for me - still hits like a truck. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to accomplish and Spotlight hits it out of the park.

I don’t believe the Catholic Church was ever meant to be an omnipotent, shadowy menace. And I don’t think the dismissing of the extent of these claims over the decades was a Boston being Boston thing. For me, what makes Boston unique is the idea that despite being a city, it still feels like a small town (something mentioned in the movie). This is very much my experience with Boston. The Catholic Church has a presence in Boston you might expect in a small, not well off rural town. What the church did was isolate victims, not really much more, leaving them to believe it was a genuine rarity and being contained by the church. In that containment, the church covered up a lot, but never with an X Files conspiracy depth, they just tried to do everything quietly. Because of that small town vibe, systemic failures take over. Let’s all work this out together and try to do our best for everyone - with one actor proceeding in extremely bad faith (zing!) throughout the process. I think the fact that all the pieces were there for so long before anyone put them together is a strength of the story, not so much the main characters having less to overcome.

I definitely agree that Ruffalo does some weird stuff with his face. I took it to be part of him trying to capture the real person (but I don’t know anything about the real person… just an assumption). To me, I took it as the guy wearing his thoughts on his sleeve a bit, so to speak. He seems like a smart enough guy, but he’s also a pretty basic guy. Blue collar, worked for what he has, tries his best with an earnest vibe that to me drove the facial stuff. I feel like all the main actors are pretty much fantastic because Spotlight requires everything to be so no frills. No grand standing, no scenery chewing, costumes straight off the rack at JC Penney or Macy’s, locations that you would never mistake for sound stages and green screens, and a script that packs a hell of a punch despite never deviating from a recounting of the facts.

I bet Spotlight gets a few Oscar nods. Making this kind of movie with this amount of impact takes a skill that might be easy to overlook. Worth checking out at a minimum.

I caught Spotlight today and have a number of jumbled and maybe a little nuanced thoughts, so here are a few different cracks at it. Spoilers here.

  1. I’d love to see a Superman movie where Clark Kent overcomes evil by using his resources at the Daily Planet. Spotlight is close. Our heroes (Batman, Howard Stark, The Hulk, Notebook Girl, Sabertooth, and Captain America Serum Inventor) band together in their headquarters in the bowels of the offices of the Globe to fight The Secret Society of Pederasts. The SSP infiltrated Catholic Church just like Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. They don’t have a master plan to molest kids on an operational level, it’s more of a hobby they indulge in when they can. That’s still pretty bad; many suffering molested kids grow up broken, or kill themselves. The Spotlight League springs into action to spot a light on the darkness, but they’re startled at how much darkness they find. It’s Spotlightin’ time!

A good superhero movie rests on strong villains. Even though they committed horrible acts they didn’t have to answer for, the Secret Society of Pederasts were pretty lightweight. Sabertooth kept insisting that their crimefighting would be wasted against small numbers of child molesters, they need to shake up the entire institution. He briefly encounters the archvillain of the archdiocese, Cardinal Law, and Notebook Girl briefly encounters one of the actual SSP villains, who is a wimp; neither villain is shaken. The Spotlight League does a great job connecting the dots, but I don’t think they succeeded in the institutional shakeup. They wind up harrumphing at Cardinal Law and imply that his masters Canon Law and Holy See might be involved, but there isn’t a big showdown. Our heroes simply gather evidence, send up the Bat-signal, and that’s that. Cardinal isn’t even a child molester himself, he just knew that some of his minions were up to shenanigans and treated them in his shadowy organization’s ways.

But then, Batman and Howard Stark on the Spotlight League also knew about these child abusers.

Nobody on either side tried to put anyone in jail or in the grave. Catholic Church didn’t sic their sicarii* on the reporters, no sinister nuns monitored houses at 2 AM, no one dodged an X-communication blast. The Globe printed plenty of copies of the big Sunday issue and maybe even sold some, but they didn’t triumphantly nail a copy to the cathedral door. Maybe that’s why Dr. Manhattan was on the side of Catholic Church, because this was a deconstruction of the superhero movie. I suppose evil was thwarted, and I got to see a movie where the hero journalists use the power of their paper, back when newspapers could do some good, so that was nice.

  1. Spotlight is an interesting contrast with The Big Short. That movie also covered a scandalous revelation in the 2000s involving one of the world’s great institutions. Both movies involved well-cast small groups of experts who analyzed the situation and were shocked at the magnitude of the fuck-up. These experts had little initial success exposing it to the national audience, and while they were morally astounded at the institution’s failures, they also wanted to profit off their discovery of these failures. (Remember that subplot where Ruffalo wants to rush the story before the Herald catches wind of it?) The Big Short was energetic, almost frenetic. It also emphasized the date as part of the setting, since each passing month in 2007 or 2008 was another tick on the time bomb. Spotlight was competent and reasonably well-shot. Director Tom McCarthy really knows where to plant his tripod. They didn’t go out of their way to place it at a specific time, except for the minor speed bump when 9/11 threw off the journos’ reportage. Maybe that is because “the Catholic Church works on the time span of centuries.” In The Big Short, our market analysts are confronted with their own moral culpability. The pressure is on, they may be financially ruined if the financial system doesn’t start shaking itself to pieces on time. Here, our crusading newshounds do nothing more than assemble a jigsaw puzzle, and the audience has already seen what the picture is supposed to look like from the box the pieces came in.

  2. Look, I was raised Roman Catholic. I was an altar boy, I got to partake in a number of sacraments (all of them except Holy Orders and maybe Anointing of the Sick—collect 'em all!). I was never molested by a priest or brother, but I definitely related to the movie’s dialogue about how awesome, how godly, priests were and how cool it was when a priest paid attention to a young boy. When the Boston diocese scandal broke in 2001 or 2002, I was already a lapsed Catholic. Never mind why, that’s for P&R. The reports didn’t shock me; I was already jaded by so many reports of individual priests getting caught, locally and nationwide. My then-girlfriend’s family friend, who I think was some sort of Protestant, acknowledged the news with a “well, it’s not just the Catholics. Every church has something like this going on.” When she said that, my lapsed Catholic pride wanted to kick in, to brag that well actually the Roman Catholic Church was founded by Peter straight from Jesus, and you Lutherans or Baptists or Branch Davidians or whatever are just tiny splinters from the main trunk of the real church, so yeah your little churches might be led by Elmer Gantry shysters or sexual predators, but this is important, it’s actual Christianity as it was meant to be followed and mortal men have fucked it up and it will be awful when Jesus comes back as was promised in the Scriptures and… The reflex faded, and then I remembered that I now believed that all organized religion was all hooey, so I merely smiled, nodded and allowed that she was probably right.

At the end of the movie, the big story is printed. More victims publicly revealed they had been victimized and win settlements (offscreen). A few priests are jailed. America knows that the Catholic Church isn’t the best place to take their kids…but no deacon, priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal or pontiff goes so far as to say that maybe they’ll try to cut down on the molestation. They don’t even set a modest goal like “we’ll try to cut our totals of priests that molest kids by three percent over the next sixty years.” Yet we feel like (or are supposed to feel like) the main characters won a huge victory. Did they? I felt like they were punching air. What they did was good and noble, shining light on the forces of darkness, but it’s hard to judge the impact since the institution is so massive, amorphous, and minders of their own business.

Even if this wasn’t a comic book story like I hilariously** wrote in the first paragraph, the story was all about good versus evil. The more interesting villains in good v. evil stories think that they are the heroes. Here, everything is from the point of view of the journalists. This was a choice that was easier to vet for accuracy, but I don’t know if it was the best choice for the story. I would have loved to see why the archdiocese believed that concealing pederasts was the best call to make from their perspective. I wanted to see how a good priest would react when his parish brother was accused and shuffled away to something that’s a cross between a safehouse and a rendition black box. There was that one monster that Rachel McAdams briefly encountered, who lived a life without remorse, but her conversation is cut short.

I wanted the movie to show me how the Catholic Church permeated the lives of so many Bostonians. Yes, we see short snippets of a homily, of a children’s choir, of church architecture dominating skylines, of a grandmother that faithfully attends mass, but there isn’t enough context there. There’s a copy of a catechism in this movie, but as it doesn’t help unravel the mystery of the pedophile priests (unlike the annual parish directories), no one bothers reading it. It’s just…there. The Church felt like a stock stand-in, like the faceless evil organization could have been the CIA, the Elks, or the mill that employed the town. I missed that blend of dogma, of community, of ritual, of bored parishioners limping through songs, of the calendar slowly turning from Christmas to Easter to Ordinary Time, of the salty taste of a communion wafer, of a prayer recited over a rosary bead, of smoky incense wafting from a censer, of the echoing thuds of a church filled with kneelers suddenly lowered to the ground, of spaghetti dinners and bingo nights, of baskets of dollar bills passed down pews, of a priest presiding over a wedding, of a priest visiting a dying man, of a priest comforting a new widow. Maybe even priests abusing kids. Mark Ruffalo’s and Rachel McAdam’s interviews with some of the damaged men came the closest to what I was looking for, that and Mark Ruffalo’s impassioned lines about how he’d thought that one day he could rejoin the Church if he, y’know, felt like it, but now it was impossible. It’s frustrating that so much passion had so little result. Jeez, Spotlight uncovered some long-buried feelings in me. The Big Short didn’t do that.

*okay, Catholic sicarii are a stretch. From the opening titles of Sicario, I learned that there were some Jewish Zealots called Sicarii (hitmen) that would serve as great playable characters if Assassin’s Creed ever wanted to do a prequel. They existed right around the time the Romans brought their heavy foot down on Judea. It isn’t accurate to say that the Roman Catholic Church had anything to do with Sicarii. These bad-ass terrorists/freedom fighters were Jewish, not Christian. However, the Christians were busy rifting off from the Jews during this Apostolic Age in liturgical history, so perhaps the dagger-men were one of several ideas they kept. Fictionally.

** your mileage may vary

There are probably many movies to be made from these incidents. Clearly, you were looking for a very very different movie.

(Which, for the record, was my favorite movie of 2015…it was pretty close to exactly what I love about movies. I’ve seen it twice already, and I’m sure I’ll see it at least as many times as I’ve seen All The Presidents Men (at least a dozen))

I watched this over the shoulder of the person sitting in the row in front of me on a flight to Minneapolis last week, without subtitles. Which probably says more about the book I was trying to read than about anything else.

Just watched this tonight to get in the Easter spirit I guess…great movie. Surprised this thread is dead, especially post-Oscars.

Weird. I thought I had commented on the movie earlier, but apparently I didn’t!

I’ve seen it twice now which, I guess, speaks for itself. It’s just such a terrific cast down to the smallest role. The Spotlight team, the lawyers played by Tucci and Crudup. The actors that played the victims were terrific as well and did a great job in bringing across how tormented the characters are. The script is really tight and there’s not a single scene that makes you think “Well, feels a bit out of place; they should have cut it.”

I liked how they initially make you think that Baron (Schreiber) might be one of the ‘baddies’ in this - as in: the one the Spotlight team will have to fight internally because he’s the guy to come in an streamline the staff. There’s the dinner with Robinson (Keaton) in which he states his intention, and you think they’ll be butting heads throughout the movie. Except that this isn’t what’s happening.

I also appreciated didn’t overdo things other movies might have overdone. I’m really fine with there not being as scene in which one of the reporters walks home and is under the impression that he’s being followed by someone. You know, a “the stakes are so high that I’m starting to feel paranoid” bit. (Granted, there is this one scene where Ruffalo’s character is being warned about the power/reach of the Church just to have the phone conversation cut off and Slattery’s character knock on his door right in that second - that felt a bit strange.)

It’s simply an important story - and it’s still topical as new cases of abuse keep popping up everywhere.

I just watched this movie. I was riveted during the entire running time. It’s a rare, well-crafted movie that can keep me glued to my chair with scenes of paperwork being extracted from files, names being circled on sheets of paper, and other scenes of the long detailed slog that is good print journalism.

I also love how the movie scales things up for the audience. We might already be familiar with this story, but the movie starts us off with a few priests being looked into, until there is an accusation that it might be 13 priests. There is a shocked look among the four reporters on the story. 13 priests? Gasp! And then later there is another shift, and it might be 90 priests. That is when the movie has already drawn you in with the idea that it might be as high as 13, and then 90 appropriately blows your mind like it does the characters we’re following.

It’s a really well crafted, well told story that’s very entertaining despite being about a tough subject matter. And that’s really hard to do, and I really admire what this movie accomplishes.