True-life scandals have been fodder for motion pictures for years. There was Karen Silkwood, the plutonium plant employee who raised concerns about health and safety at her plant before she died in a suspicious accident. She was portrayed by Meryl Streep in Silkwood, while her story likely inspired parts of The China Syndrome. More recently Julia Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for her performance as Erin Brockovich, the paralegal who wins a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against PG&E for poisoning a town’s water supply. The Insider, Quiz Show, Good Night and Good Luck, all were based on actual events. But the granddaddy of them all is All the President’s Men. It managed to turn the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of the Watergate conspiracy into one of the best political thrillers ever, and is at least partially to blame for every supposed scandal since having –gate added onto it, as if the suffix could give gravitas to the situation all by itself. Currently in the theaters is Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation that blew open the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. It’s not too much to say that Spotlight is this generation’s All the President’s Men, but in some ways it’s even better.
The title comes from the name of the paper’s investigational team. Three reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – work under editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Spotlight is set up to take on stories that might take months to develop and require deep digging into records as well as wearing out plenty of shoe leather. The team is under the overall supervision senior editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the son of the Washington Post editor who oversaw Woodward and Bernstein. In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) is brought in from Miami as editor-in-chief, amid concerns of staff cuts. When Robby meets with Baron, rather than talking of cutbacks Marty brings up a case that’s been mentioned in a column about a lawyer pursuing a suit against a priest who’d abused children in six parishes over a couple of decades. The lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), claims to have proof that Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) knew about the abuse but did nothing. However, the documents in the case have been sealed. Baron thinks this is a story that would be perfect for the Spotlight team.
Movies already have the challenge of making us suspend our disbelief so that what we see on the screen seems real. With Spotlight, there was also the challenge to suspend prior knowledge of the story and simply watch it play out. The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has become a huge scandal that has shaken the church from the local parish all the way up to the Vatican. The excellent script by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (who also directed) makes us want to watch it play out. It recreates the world of Boston prior to the scandal where the status quo could be counted on to hide many sins. Singer wrote for “The West Wing” and also did the script for The Fifth Estate in 2013, while McCarthy wrote and directed The Station Agent (with Peter Dinklage) and Win Win (with Paul Giamatti), as well as providing the story for Up. Given the quality of Spotlight, it’s to be earnestly hoped that they work together again soon.
The cast is outstanding and they well deserve their nomination for a SAG award as the best ensemble. They may not nail the Boston patois – the movie makes its own joke about it when Stanley Tucci learns that Ruffalo is from South Boston and comments, “You don’t sound like it” – but they do nail the characters. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and James show their character’s individuality, even as they work together. Schrieber gives a restrained performance as Baron that highlights his intelligence and observant nature. But every single actor in the film turns in performances of diamond clarity and sharpness, from the main cast through Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle and Jamey Sheridan in key supporting roles, through to the smaller roles – in particular those who portray the victims. They honor those they embody.
Howard Shore has composed a subtle but effective score for the film that touches your emotions without hammering you over the head. Stephen H. Carter’s production design is first-class; it makes you feel like you’re walking around Boston neighborhoods, even though the movie was partially filmed in Toronto.
A powerful takeaway from this film is the absolute necessity of local papers and journalists. No TV reporter could have uncovered this story, nor could a blogger working on his own. If it weren’t for the Globe’s investment in investigational journalism, this story might never have broken and the institutionalized abuse would have continued. McCarthy and Singer make that clear, particularly in one scene between Ruffalo and Tucci near the end. It’s a gut-punch of a scene – when you see the movie you’ll know which one I’m talking about – that makes an eloquent plea for this type of reporting. In the credits, a website address is given where you can go to pledge support to investigative journalism, but something everyone could do is subscribe to their local paper, even if it’s the electronic version.
When the lights go dim in the newsrooms of this land, abuses of all kinds can play freely in the darkness.