Spotlight

February 4, 2016
Michael Keaton in 'Spotlight' (2015)
Michael Keaton in 'Spotlight' (2015)

For a brief but terrible moment this week, I thought I might have to review Dirty Grandpa as my second film. I remember saying beforehand: “Don’t worry, it won’t be like Bad Grandpa, it’s got Robert De Niro.”

That much was true: Dirty Grandpa made the Jackass team’s Bad Grandpa seem like an Ernst Lubitsch classic. Never have I seen a film so completely devoid of redeeming features. It is one long, vile procession of foul language and dick jokes, wrapped in an improbable goo of sentimentality. Whatever awards De Niro has won during a previously distinguished career, should be stripped from him like medals taken from disgraced athletes. My new rule is: no more movies with the word “grandpa” in the title!

This is the truly insidious effect of PC in America – it licences all sorts of repulsive reactions that appeal to the basest human instincts. Dirty Grandpa and Donald Trump are prime examples.

It was with enormous relief that I was able to catch Spotlight, a sober film about the Boston Globe’s award-winning investigation of 2001 into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sex abuse cases.

As if acknowledging the inflammatory nature of the subject, Tom McCarthy has directed a movie in which every moment of possible melodrama is played down. There is no love interest and no confected action sequences. When reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) gets a unexpected ring on his doorbell, one almost instinctively expects an albino psychopath sent by Opus Dei. Instead it’s his editor, Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) bringing him leftover pizza.

When reporter Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) knocks on a door and comes face to face with a paedophile priest, he admits quite naturally that he “fooled around”, but didn’t take any gratification. This is too weird to be anything but drawn from life.

Spotlight is the name of the Globe’s investigative unit, an elite team of reporters led by Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), that might take up to a year to bring a major story to light. This seems a trifle indulgent to new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who takes on the job at a time when newspapers are beginning to feel the pinch. Nevertheless, Baron thinks it is more important to attract readers with good stories than go straight for the axe.

He has noticed an item in a column about a paedophile priest whose activities were known to Boston’s Archbishop, Cardinal Law, and left unpunished. To Baron this seems like a story worth following up. The reporters feel the new editor has revealed a lack of understanding about the power and influence of the Church in Boston, where the population – and their readership – is largely Catholic.

Baron, fresh in from Miami and Jewish, is an outsider, while the journos are all locals. Yet when Spotlight takes up the story and begin talking to a victim support group they find it is not simply a matter of one rogue priest but as many as 13. Speaking to an expert on sexual abuse within the Church they learn that a more accurate estimate of offenders in the Boston diocese would be closer to 90. They are looking at a pattern of systemic abuse and cover-ups.

This movie is the diametric opposite of James Vanderbilt’s Truth, in which the CBS 60 Minutes team were crucified for not being able to confirm a controversial story. The Spotlight reporters are scrupulous in gathering evidence and testimonies. It feels as if we are watching a jigsaw puzzle being slowly assembled, with only the personalities of the reporters providing a touch of drama. Rezendes is a model of the relentless newshound who lives only for his work. His colleague, Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) is a family man, horrified to find that a refuge for disgraced priests is just around the corner from his house.

The patterns of round-the-clock work, bad food and stressed relationships, are standard features of the journalist life. Nothing feels implausible in this portrait.

Although the Spotlight team succeeds where the reporters in Truth failed, both films feel like commemorative pieces for a lost age of investigative journalism – a practice now considered too expensive or dangerous by many media organisations. When the story is printed McCarthy treats us to old-fashioned scenes of newspapers coming off the printing press and being bundled into trucks. This may still happen on a daily basis, but it feels nostalgic. Even the methods of research feel antiquated, making one realise how pervasive the Internet has become since 2001.

The exposure of the Catholic Church’s willingness to turn a blind eye to child-molesting priests turned out to be one of the biggest stories of the decade, and its echoes are still being heard today. It began as a scandal that rocked the Boston establishment but ended by undermining people’s faith in organised religion. In order to bring the truth to light the major hurdle was to overcome the sanctimony of the Church, its reputation as a force for good. It’s a reminder that when large vested interests need to defend their own power and prestige the worst crimes become nothing more than matters of expediency.

Spotlight
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
USA, rated M, 129 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th February, 2016.