I remember sitting in the tiny Bible study room of my local Kingdom Hall, an anxious almost teenager preparing to meet with church elders, men assigned the task of playing moral police within local congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses.
I remember listening to them as they began to ask questions, though I can also recall feeling as if they'd already answered the questions for themselves.
They wanted to know about Jeff, the older teenager who'd been raping me for long enough that I had physical scars that hadn't and would never go away. I remember struggling to use the word "rape," because I wasn't really sure if it was rape or love or whatever.
I remember being called gay. I remember not knowing what that even meant.
I remember the church sweeping my truths aside and telling me that I was no longer good enough or clean enough or pure enough for my friends or my church or my God.
I remember being ashamed. I remember wanting to scar this body that had betrayed me and betrayed my church and betrayed my God. I remember inflicting scar after scar after scar on my body because I was absolutely convinced I deserved it. I remember trying desperately to end my life and being unable to figure out why the same God that I had so completely betrayed refused to let me go.
I remember just wanting to go.
Then, I remember the first time I was believed and the tears that flowed for what seemed like years.
I remembered all of these things as I watched Spotlight unfolding before my eyes. Despite remembering these things, it is precisely because Spotlight is not an emotional tour-de-force that it is easily one of the best films to ever address the subject of sexual abuse. Spotlight is not about "abuse," but about the gods we worship and the systems that we create that allow abuse to happen. Co-written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, a master at telling big stories in small settings in such films as The Station Agent and Win-Win, Spotlight tells the story of an inspired group of journalists from the Boston Globe who set out in 2001 to uncover the truth behind the systematic cover-up of abuse within the local archdiocese of the Catholic Church.
Spotlight is the story of how that Pulitzer Prize-winning story was created. Again, it must be stressed that Spotlight is not, at least not at its core, about the actual abuse but about the systems that we far too often worship that allow abuse to happen and perpetuate itself.
Spotlight does not attack the Catholic Church. If anything, it offers a rather scathing indictment of you and I.
Don't get me wrong. Spotlight doesn't let the priests off the hook, but McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer wisely know that the abuse of a child doesn't start or stop with the perpetrator. Spotlight is about those who knew and did nothing, whether out of loyalty or ignorance or stupidity or complicity. Spotlight asks uncomfortable questions and refuses to accept comfortable answers.
McCarthy's low-key approach works well here as D.P. Masanobu Takayanagi's lensing bathes the film in a muted and familiar intimacy. McCarthy has wisely cast the film to avoid unnecessary histrionics and instead drives home the power of community by creating one of the best ensemble motion pictures to hit the big screen in quite some time. There isn't really a "star" here and there isn't anyone whose performance towers over another, but instead Spotlight puts the shared spotlight on the key players who comprise the Boston Globe's crack team of investigative journalists known collectively as Spotlight.
The story kicks off with the arrival at The Globe of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the newspaper's new editor and a man known for inflicting cost-cutting measures in the early days of print media's becoming challenged by the rise of web-based journalism. Baron is a Jew who arrives into heavy Catholic Boston unaware of just how firmly the Catholic Church holds sway on the city's institutions. Continuing his renaissance of sorts, Michael Keaton shines even more brightly than he did in Birdman as Robby Robinson, the head of Globe's investigative team. Baron immediately wonders aloud why Robinson's team hadn't followed up on columnist Eileen McNamara's (Maureen Keiller) recent piece about retired priest John Geoghan. Baron puts the Spotlight team on the task of finding out exactly why court documents surrounding the Geoghan case have been sealed, an investigation that leads to far more than anyone ever expected.
There will be those who will fault Spotlight for being more a newsroom procedural than an expose' or condemnation of the Catholic Church. While it is true that Spotlight may have held an even stronger emotional sway had McCarthy opted to delve more deeply into the actual victims, the simple truth is that Spotlight never loses focus on the bigger picture. It's the same exact approach that the Boston Globe took and society is better off for it.
While much of Spotlight is a procedural, McCarthy's absolutely stellar cast is never less than fully human. Brian d'Arcy James, as Matt Carroll, intelligently portrays the inner conflicts of a journalist who realizes that one of the Catholic Church's "treatment centers" is a mere block away from his home as he wants desperately to warn the neighborhood families while also protecting the integrity of the story. Rachel McAdams, in perhaps her best work to date, shines as Sacha Pfeiffer, a lapsed Catholic who becomes even more lapsed. Mark Ruffalo, as Michael Rezendes, is the most spirited of the reporters and it's his and McAdams's encounters with some of the victims that gives the film its emotional core. Ruffalo is one of Hollywood's best ensemble players and he's at the top of his game here. Keaton, offering a performance that is quiet yet complex, is the closest thing the film has to a leading performance yet even he blends himself so seamlessly into the fabric of the ensemble that it seems almost unjust to consider it a leading performance.
There are so many filmmakers who would have turned Spotlight into a tour-de-force kind of film. Let's face it ... the material lends itself to high drama and cinematic showboating. Instead, Spotlight's power rests in its almost jarring normalcy and unrelenting conviction that we are all to blame when a child is abused. In fact, it doesn't even let the Globe itself off the hook.
The film's normalcy may best be illustrated each time one of the victims comes across the screen, scenes that unfold with intelligence and honesty and authenticity and compassion. These victims, some of whom have had their lives destroyed by the abuse and some of whom have simply tried to move on at times without telling a soul, are achingly human individuals, both men and women, who will likely look and feel familiar to you. The normalcy radiates even in the most unique characters, perhaps most notably in Stanley Tucci's grounded and inspired work as Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who has long worked with alleged victims whose entire soul seems to have become tainted dealing with a system that seems to care more about the system than the people.
Perhaps the best film centering around journalists since All the President's Men, Spotlight is intelligent and thrilling and occasionally funny and frequently heartbreaking. It is mesmerizing to behold and may very well be impossible to forget. It made me remember and it made me grateful that I refused to shut the hell up despite being silenced the first time I told my own secrets.
Spotlight is a nearly perfect example of what happens when the perfect filmmaker works with the perfect script and acquires the perfect cast and crew to bring a story to life. A brilliant film almost precisely because it doesn't aim for brilliance, Spotlight is one of the best films of 2015 and Thomas McCarthy's best film to date.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic