The scandal broke on Jan. 6, 2002, the Feast of the Epiphany — and what a revelation.
On that Sunday, The Boston Globe Spotlight team released the first in a series of articles that would earn them a Pulitzer Prize and cast light on a story that had been festering in the dark corners of Catholic parishes around Massachusetts for decades: Priests had been molesting children while church officials knew and did nothing to stop it. In fact, the church hierarchy enabled the offenders to have access to more and more victims by hiding the perpetrators' crimes and shifting them from parish to parish where they could continue "preying upon" instead of "praying for" the families who relied on them most for spiritual help.
The new film "Spotlight" is a killer exposé, a multifaceted, lucid and deeply potent account of what it took for the Globe's investigative unit to uncover the sex abuse scandal that would culminate in Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation and rock the very foundations of the Catholic Church. It is also a study in communal blindness, willful and accidental. Most important of all, the film is not only gripping but also steadfastly accurate — and we here in Boston would know.
The film was shot on location and many of the key players are still very much around: Boston Globe reporters Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, Matt Carroll (now at MIT's Media Lab) and Spotlight editor Walter "Robby" Robinson. Former editor Marty Baron is now at The Washington Post. They must all love their casting here.
Director Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, worked closely with the key Globe players to keep it honest, and so the movie begins where it should -- at ground zero, with the victims, and never loses sight of them.
The opening scene involves a family filing a police report about the sexual abuse of their son by their parish priest, the infamous Father John Geoghan who is briefly held in custody, then released. Immediately we understand that despite reassurances, not much is going to happen; in predominantly Catholic Boston, the Church is, well, the Church, and folks are used to looking the other way.
The scene soon shifts to The Boston Globe where new editor Baron is meeting with the staff. Played by Liev Schreiber as a dour, all business kind of guy, Baron has just come up from Florida to take the helm. As an outsider and Jewish, newly arrived in Catholic Boston, he brings fresh eyes and sees something the others don't; he suggests almost immediately that the Spotlight team open an investigation into reports of sexual abuse by Boston priests which the Church "found out about and did nothing." His uncluttered vision not only guides the investigation, but also informs the even-tempered spirit of the film and its clear and balanced structure.
A laid-back Michael Keaton plays Spotlight team editor Robinson with casual wit, and a subtle Boston accent; Mark Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a feisty and dogged reporter who is geeked for the challenge; Pfeiffer is played by Rachel McAdams as a fearless yet sensitive investigator; and Carroll is played by a mustachioed Brian d'Arcy James who eventually gets the creeps when he realizes there's a home for "wayward" priests just down the block from his home. In and among the stars are scattered real Globe staff members, and local Boston actors in speaking parts: Maureen Keiller as columnist Eileen McNamara and Nancy E. Carroll as an accused priest's sister, slamming the door in Sacha's face. All of these performances are deeply sympathetic, human rather than theatrical in scale, and never overwhelm the story they are telling.
In the wings of the film is John Slattery's character, deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., whose legendary father and his Washington Post brought down "All The President's Men" during the Watergate scandal. That landmark 1976 journalistic thriller manages to create enough suspense to somehow convince you that Woodward and Bernstein might not get the story after all, while "Spotlight's" conclusion is never in doubt. Neither as artful nor as intense, "Spotlight" is nevertheless relentless, meticulous and deeply satisfying. Watching the newspapers going to print on the big presses, being bundled onto trucks in the middle of the night and hitting the pavement the next morning, we feel the story concretely there; the film hits you that way — like an old-fashioned punch in the gut.
We are on the hunt with these reporters as they pound the pavement and the doors of the Church that scrupulously covered its tracks by hiding documents, or making them legally inaccessible, and manipulating the guilt and shame of the victims in order to extract their silence. While Len Cariou is more avuncular and less cold-eyed than the actual prelate, Paul Guilfoyle as a member of Cardinal Law's inner archdiocesan coterie of Catholic supporters oozes the smug threat of a man who won't brook the breaking of ranks no matter how hideous the crimes against children.
Billy Crudup smoothly plays lawyer Eric MacLeish, who routinely represented scores of victims, taking a third of their settlements while they signed confidentiality agreements, and the Church swept it under the rug. But as we eventually see, he is more complex than his actions initially suggest. Another lawyer, the irascible Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci, is doing his best to get his victimized plaintiffs to come forward.
The film finds ways to keep us glued to the mundane work of reporting and builds tension as we watch the team poring over newly discovered documents late into the night, decoding them for the various euphemisms used to disguise misconduct as "sick" priests “on leave” were being transferred from parish to parish. We also witness the painful conversations these reporters had to navigate with now-adult victims. The script captures the courage and nuance it took for them to tread the precarious line between respectful distance and graphic detail in order to get and tell the story. I was relieved that I never had to do that kind of reporting.
The film deftly juggles all the facets of this sprawling story, keeping them clear, grounded and in balance, just as Baron kept a clear eye on what the real story was, not only the potential breadth of its scope, but most of all the depth of the Church's complicity in these crimes. The film is a primer on investigative journalism, how and where to focus your gaze, when to publish no matter the pressure to beat the competition, and how that vision can make the most impact.
The film also reveals something subtler. It peels back the layers of resistance systemically embedded in the community itself. The idea that one cannot investigate the Church is repeated over and over again, by almost everyone, from the public to the perpetrators, from the gatekeepers — Church leaders, lawyers, politicians, school officials, police and civil servants — to the victims, their families and even the investigative reporters themselves.
In one brave moment of soul-searching, "Robby" guiltily questions his own involvement, wondering aloud why he didn't notice all the pieces already in his possession, and solve the puzzle sooner. Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) a victim and founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and someone I knew, had actually sent incriminating detailed information to the Globe years earlier. Why did no one see it and act? It's a tough moment and a necessary one. In the film, Baron thoughtfully responds that “sometimes you’re stumbling around in the dark until someone turns on a light…" In this case, he was the one unencumbered enough to believe his own eyes.
"Spotlight" is already eliciting Oscar buzz, but more importantly it continues to shine a light on the crimes it documents, illuminating the way to those crimes yet to be redressed, while the perpetrators squirm in the glare.
Joyce Kulhawik is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, president of the Boston Theater Critics Association and member of The Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read her reviews online at JoycesChoices.com.