Above the Law
There's a point in Tom McCarthy's new film where brand new Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) insists that the target isn't a few bad priests, or even the powerful cardinal shielding said priests. "We're going after the system," he informs his newsmen. It's one of the picture's more quietly powerful moments in the way it yanks us back, from considering the process of writing a series of news articles to the broader perspective: exposure of both a venerable American city and an ancient multinational organization, caught in an act of unholy collaboration.
I'd have called McCarthy's Spotlight--about The Boston Globe's eponymous special investigative team and its years-in-the-making report on the Catholic Church's sexual abuse cover-up--the most terrifying film of the year, if it hadn't been upstaged by the recent onscreen telling of an even bigger horror story. The film is most affecting when it deals with those affected: when victims are asked to re-live past traumas--are asked in effect to be violated again, to at times dig up decades-old memories--for truth's sake. Their vignettes remind me of what made Up in the Air so memorable: the cumulative image of people giving testimony, a broad collage of lips eyes faces pain.
Sometimes the stories are as devastating as Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton) offering details of his first encounter with an abuser (he freely admits he's gay, but not once concedes that this excuses his attacker, or mitigates his pain); sometimes it's as effective as SNAP leader Phil Saviano (Neil Huff) sitting before the Spotlight team, initially coming across like a crackpot (the revelation that he's also a victim does little to improve his credibility), gradually winning his listeners over with the accumulated detail of his testimony and his plainspoken delivery.
Of those trying to help Stanley Tucci's Atty. Mitchell Garabedian pockets the picture and walks casually away. The advocate lawyer's seen-it-all heard-it-all weariness is funny the way a mountaineer perched on a peak waiting for slower climbers to catch up is funny; along with Mark Rylance's ruefully fatalist spy it's possibly my favorite performance in a mainstream movie.
McCarthy has admitted in interviews that he had a story behind the story he wanted to tell, the continuing importance of journalism--a noble cause well-championed by the film. It's no All the President's Men though; Alan J. Pakula's masterful screen realization of the Watergate scandal told a complex tale with equivalent realism but far more compelling style. Unlike McCarthy, Pakula isn't above delivering a thrill or two: shadowy meetings in underground garages, typewriters snapping out warnings under the blare of Vivaldi. Better than the noir touches are the evocative ones--particularly of Woodward and Bernstein processing piles of papers, overhead camera pulling back to reveal an immense surrounding space (actually the Library of Congress' vast reading room); reveal in effect the relative insignificance, the apparent hopelessness of their cause.
Spotlight covers too much territory to etch much detail onto its characters (to be fair the most significant fact you might remember about the Watergate reporters in Pakula's film was that Woodward was the gentile) but does pause to show however briefly the devastating effect of the news on the earnest faithful--they don't exactly rise to renounce their beliefs but they're visibly shaken. As for my faith: I believe the Church is made up of not just priests or their superiors but every baptized soul; not knowing has poisoned our faith, eroded our trust, eaten away at our capacity to love the institution almost beyond the point of repair. The Boston Globe articles in early 2002 did much to draw out the venom; everything that followed is what we might call the long painful process of healing. Which, I hope and suppose, is a good thing.
Last point: the film may not have told its story as well as the story deserves but the fact that it's being told at all on Metro Manila theater screens is already something of a miracle. The last major film to deal with Church abuse--Stephen Frears' Philomena (in my book a more openly dramatic more skillfully wrought more poignant work overall)--didn't enjoy a local commercial run, and one is tempted to blame the Church's stranglehold on local media and the then-reigning pontiff. In some ways times have changed (the new Pope made the effort to meet with Steve Coogan and Philomena Lee), in some ways not so much (abuse victim and critic Peter Saunders has recently been dismissed from the Church's investigative body). The struggle continues.
First published in Businessworld 2.26.16