Spotlight, a bland chronicling of the uncovering of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church by an investigative team at the Boston Globe around the turn of the millennium, is so dim in its perception that it could more aptly have been titled Nightlight. Suffering in particular from an obtusely linear script, this mediocre piece of documentary-like storytelling illuminates few aspects of the seamy affair that we couldn’t have discovered ourselves through a bit of Internet detective work. It’s an encomium to journalism in the manner of Alan Pakula‘s All the President’s Men but without the latter’s taut narrative and top-notch performances. (Sorry, Michael Keaton, but you’re no Dustin Hoffman.) Director Tom McCarthy appears unaware that a movie, even one “based on actual events,” is more like an editorial than a front-page headline. The only real “insights” in Spotlight are attributable to its anti-Catholic agenda, which lies not so thinly veiled behind its ode to the integrity of investigative reporting.
Indeed, what begins as a quest to uncover evidence damning a few specific abusers—such as the infamous John Geoghan—quickly devolves into a generalized indictment of “systemic” corruption within the Catholic Church. The news team, among whom Walter V. (“Robby”) Robinson (Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) are featured most prominently, jump to this absurd conclusion when they find out two things: that six percent of all priests in Boston could be pedophiles and that Boston archbishop Bernard Law was involved in the cover-up of the affair. Leading the pack of reporting vultures lusting to tear at the Church’s carcass is newly appointed editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a beady-eyed careerist feared for his reputation as a corporate hatchet man. Motivated by seemingly little else besides the typical lust of a media man for higher ratings, Baron has the team drop their current projects and dedicate its full time to a story of more “local” import to the people of Boston (but, naturally, one he thinks could reap globally significant recognition and profits).
Allow me a minute to point out that the conclusions the team reaches are understandable, but stupid. Any reasonably intelligent sixth grader should see that moral choices are an individual, rather than an institutional, matter. The cliché of a “few bad eggs rotting the whole barrel” sounds nice and catchy, but it happens to be false. The Church as an institution is no more blameworthy for the sexual misconduct of a few offenders than the entire NYPD is reprehensible because a few of its members performed hits for the mob.
Yes, I know this is supposed to be a criticism of an artistic product rather than the messengers, er, reporters. So back to it. The above digression illustrates what’s so wrong with the general thrust of this film (and of the whole investigation). Namely, the abuse affects not systems, but individuals—both the victims, whose lives have been forever marred, and the reprobate clergy, enslaved by their twisted and forbidden lusts. And Spotlight consecrates precious little time to the struggles of either group. The victims are presented as little more than cardboard agents of revenge, mere participants in a lurid questionnaire about the places they were touched. What about their emotional struggles? How do they find the strength to get through each day? How about explaining more about the significance of the term used in the film to describe them, survivors?
And the priests? You know, those guys who can’t conceal their weenies behind their frocks for too long when they spot a young lamb grazing in the churchyard? Well, the film hardly deals with them at all on any human level, reducing them to mere statistics, names on a checklist of bad guys that need to be taken down. That’s because entering into their twisted, diabolically sanctimonious mode of thinking would require real courage, not to mention perception. In one of the few scenes that piqued my interest, Pfeiffer accosts Father Paquin (Richard O’Rourke) at his home to interview him about his past misdeeds—and he admits them, almost without hesitation! Not only that, but he rationalizes his behavior as not being tantamount to “rape.” Clearly, his is a mindset of monumental denial and transference. Rather than McCarthy’s connect-the-dots exercise, how about a film that dares to ask questions about the narcissism and distortion that have possessed the minds of men who are supposed to be servants of God? What about delving more into the character of Bernard Law, the cardinal who’s largely responsible for the cover-up in the first place?
It’s too bad that Spotlight is so shallow because the performances, despite lacking inspiration, are at least serviceable. Indeed, their deficiencies may lie in the choppy, aimless screenplay. Michael Keaton, for one, has the poker face to play an objective reporter, but he ends up looking more quizzical and less confident than he should. MacAdams’s approach, too, is subdued and often overly analytical. On the other hand, Ruffalo’s portrayal of the newcomer, Michael Rezendes, who becomes an impetuous young protégé of Robby’s, sometimes verges into histrionics. His “Let’s publish the story now!” outburst to Robby has all the subtlety of the “Are we there yet?” inquiry parents often hear from their children on road trips. Meanwhile, Schreiber’s performance is perhaps the greatest disappointment: he’s so moribund as the ruthless new executive editor at the helm that he’d need at least the injection of a few thousand volts to bring his facial expressions to life. Only the lawyers seem in character — I particularly enjoyed Billy Crudup’s charmingly sinister portrayal of John MacLeish, the lawyer who abetted the Church in covering up documents.
Of course, a few not-so-embarrassing performances can’t rescue a film from mediocrity. This film is perfect for those who are used to being spoon-fed “truth” by the media. Why not dig up the weathered bones of a decade-old scandal? After all, it’s one that everybody remembers, and concerns a tradition and institution that bad boys love to spit in the face of. What Spotlight primarily reveals is a fact these disturbed priests know only too well: diddling has always been easier than performing good works.
Joe’s Grade: C+