November 13, 2015

'Spotlight' handles extremely difficult subject with class

By Carl Kozlowski *
'Spotlight' handles extremely difficult subject with class

Ever since the priestly sex-abuse scandals emerged out of the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, setting off a domino chain of events that brought shame to dioceses around the world, it seemed inevitable that Hollywood would make a movie about them. With studios often seeming eager to make the Catholic Church and other Christian believers and institutions look bad, it’s surprising that it took so long for such a movie to be released, especially amid an improved climate for faithful filmgoers who have helped make a string of faith-based films score at the box office.

But next weekend is when the first movie to deal with the scandals finally arrives. “Spotlight” is its name, and before I get into details, I’ll make it clear that it handles the extremely difficult topic with as much fairness and class as we could possibly hope for.

Tackling the Globe’s major expose of the Catholic Church in Boston and beyond back in the early 2000s, “Spotlight” focuses on the paper’s Spotlight reporting team, which handles the paper’s most extensive and complicated investigations. As the movie begins, the team’s leader Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is having dinner with a new chief editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is focused on making staff cuts and tells Robinson that his team had better find a hot story quick or risk being cut.

They soon encounter a man who leads a group of Bostonians who claim to be sexual abuse survivors, and who had been victimized by a particular Catholic priest as children. While this man claims the paper had ignored his evidence five years before, Baron wants the Spotlight team to jump on the investigation into these allegations.

The team of reporters is asked by Baron whether they are Catholic or have a bias against the Church, and all four respond that they are lapsed Catholics. One is now a practicing Presbyterian, while Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) considers herself lapsed but takes her devout grandma to Mass sometimes. Robby and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) nonchalantly note their lapsed status.

Before I continue the review, it needs to be made clear that despite their lapsed status, the movie depicts the reporters as objective and unbiased. There are absolutely no anti-Church or anti-Christian comments made in the movie, as it makes it clear that it’s men in the Church who caused the problem, not God Himself allowing it: the principle of humans failed us, not God.

Even as they come to discover that six percent of Boston’s priests were accused (87 priests in total), that still makes it clear that 94 percent did nothing wrong. The movie does also claim in an offhand comment that according to a study by studies 50 percent of Catholic priests are believed to be breaking their vows of celibacy, which is certainly open to major questioning, but makes it clear that any such illicit relationships are mostly with women.

Back to the story: as the reporters engage in trying to track down other abuse survivors and the priests who are accused of harming them, the investigation takes a personal toll on their emotions and spiritual lives. SPOILER ALERT: Sacha makes excuses to get out of bringing her grandma to church, leaving her to make it on her own; while Michael has the hardest time with it all, breaking down crying one night and saying he always felt bad about leaving the Church and wanted to go back to Mass, but now feels he has been betrayed nearly as much as the abuse victims. END SPOILER.

Intriguingly, “Spotlight” doesn’t just show the Catholic Church’s abuses in this matter and the coverups, but also shows that there was an entire culture of corruption and cover ups across Boston, including the police and even one of their own editors. Everyone was afraid to take on an institution that was seen as representing God.

The one Church official who comes off very negatively in detail is the former leader of Boston’s Archdiocese, or church government – Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who is shown dismissing the problem and refusing to comment on their investigation, even as they find records showing he helped in the coverup.

“Spotlight” is an extremely well-made and compelling movie, showing the hard work that goes into investigative journalism and the effects that a depressing story can have on those who report it. Director/co-writer Thomas McCarthy has made great films like “Win Win” and “The Station Agent” before, as well as the unfortunate Adam Sandler disaster “The Cobbler,” but he handles this movie and its difficult subject matter with as much taste and discretion as possible.

Even as the movie focuses on the moral corruption of dozens of priests and their higher leaders, and ends with a shocking list of other cities around the US and the globe where similar scandals were quickly discovered after Boston, “Spotlight” never appears to have a heavy agenda. Even the darkest corners of history can merit a movie, and this is one that does it as well as could possibly be hoped.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.