Movie review: “Spotlight”

December 28, 2015 • 10:00 am

I’ve just seen the new movie “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe‘s coverage of the Catholic child-rape scandal in their city, and how their stories shed light on not only pervasive priestly pedophilia, but its coverup by the Church hierarchy. Their reporting eventually not only led to the criminal conviction of several priests, but brought down Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston (after resigning he was, as “punishment”, given a cushy sinecure in the Vatican). It also won the paper a well deserved Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve posted about this movie twice before, once with a preliminary and positive review by a reader, and another in which I discuss Frank Bruni’s high praise for the film in the New York Times and his criticism of the privileging of faith in America.

Although I haven’t watched a ton of movies this year, I have no qualms about recommending “Spotlight’ as one of the best movies of 2015. (To my mind it’s the best one I’ve seen.) It’s not for fans of Batman, Star Trek, or Mad Max, what with their eternal and infernal chase scenes; rather, it’s simply a low-key but gripping drama about how an intrepid band of investigative reporters (“Spotlight’ is the name of the Globe‘s investigative section) fought the powerful and entrenched Catholic Church in a city where Catholicism is the going faith, one that garnered immense (but unearned) respect.  The film has fantastic acting, and gets an astounding 97% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 96% from the audience. Click on the screenshot below to go to their compilation of reviews:

Screen shot 2015-12-28 at 8.14.50 AM

Rather than summarize the plot, I refer you to Anthony Lane’s positive review in The New Yorker (free online); he’s my favorite film critic and gives it many thumbs up. An excerpt of his review:

The film is a saga of expansion, paced with immense care, demonstrating how the reports of child abuse by Catholic clergy slowly broadened and unfurled; by the time the paper’s exposés were first published, in 2002, Spotlight had uncovered about seventy cases in Boston alone. (In a devastating coda, McCarthy fills the screen with a list of other American cities, and of towns around the world, where similar misdeeds have been revealed.) The telling of the tale is doubly old-fashioned. First, there are shots of presses rolling and spiffy green trucks carrying bales of the Globe onto the streets; we could be in a cinema in 1945. Second, the events take place in an era when the Internet still seems an accessory rather than a primary tool. As the journalists comb through Massachusetts Church directories, looking for disgraced men of God who were put on sick leave or discreetly transferred to another parish, we get closeups of rulers moving down lines of text. Don’t expect “Spotlight” to play at an IMAX theatre anytime soon.

On balance, this arrant unhipness is a good thing. So crammed are the details of the inquiry, and so delicately must the topic of abuse be handled, that a more intrepid visual manner might have thrown the movie off track, and one of its major virtues is what’s not there: no creepy flashbacks of prowling priests, or—as in the prelude to Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River”—of children in the vortex of peril. Everything happens in the here and now, not least the recitation of the there and then. You sense the tide of the past rushing in most fiercely during some of the plainest scenes, as Globe staffers listen to victims like Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton) and Patrick (Jimmy LeBlanc) explain what they underwent decades before. They are grown men, but they are drowning souls. Boldest of all is the brief appearance of Richard O’Rourke as Ronald Paquin, a retired priest, who answers the door to Pfeiffer and answers her questions with the kindliest of smiles. “Sure, I fooled around, but I never felt gratified myself,” he says, as if arguing the finer points of doctrine.

“Spotlight” comes across as the year’s least relaxing film, thanks to the attention that McCarthy and his fellow-screenwriter, Josh Singer, oblige you to pay.

Two bits I’ll add here: the Church and its officials are rarely seen directly in this movie; rather, they are usually offscreen, as a faceless and odious monolith determined to protect its priests at the cost of their victims. Cardinal Law is a Sauron-like figure in person, but an enabler of pedophilia behind the scenes. And the portrayal of the Church’s victim, recounted when they were adults, recounting exactly how the priests sexually manipulated them, is heartbreaking.

I cannot say enough good things about this film, though it will leave you with an abiding anger at the Catholic Church, and at the coverup of its many pedophilic priests (nearly 90 of them) that came from the very top. Apparently Cardinal Law, with the complicity of lawyers and other Catholics, simply settled the cases brought to their attention, sealing the court records so they escaped public attention. (How they became unsealed is a fascinating subplot of this movie). You’ll see how child-raping  priests were shuttled from from parish to parish as their behaviors came to the Church’s attention. PLEASE go see this movie; it is Professor Ceiling Cat’s Movie of the Year. You won’t regret it.

Here’s the trailer, which I’ve posted before:

52 thoughts on “Movie review: “Spotlight”

  1. “It’s not for fans of Batman, Star Trek, or Mad Max”

    I wouldn’t say that. I am a big fan of Mad Max: Fury Road and Spotlight. They’re two of the best movies of the year. They just happen to be very different types of film.

    1. Yeah if I had to lump people into categories, I’d go with “movie watchers” and “not”s instead. In my experience, if a person likes going to the movies, they will generally enjoy many different movie genres. If you’re a 3 movie/year person, then yeah you might not like Mad Max *and* Spotlight, it’ll be one or the other. But if you’re a 20 movie/year person, you’ll probably like both.

      1. We are old codgers who love movies, averaging three a month. Yes, all genres. “Spotlight” is a great film. My favorites are those based on real stories like “Trumbo” and “The Big Short”, also terrific.
        We will be seeing “The Force Awakens” this week.

      2. All I can say is that many times I go to more than 20 movies a year and I simply don’t like action films at all. They seem to me like one big chase scene. Remember, a lot of this is subjective, so no matter what you do, you simply can’t get me to like those kinds of films. If others like them, well, whatever floats your boat. . . .

        1. I did not like watching Animal Kingdom as a kid because it simply made me wonder why life was merely a big chase scene.

    2. Yup, agree with aaron and eric, there is plenty of room for enjoying pure escapism (and yes I saw Star Wars already, and will probably watch a bunch of other “junk” in the next 12 months) while still appreciating more serious cinematic efforts.

    3. Yeah me too – Ant is a big pusher of Fury Road too. I can do both types of movies…I’m diverse that way.

    4. Given the implicit anti-theocracy tone of a few Star Trek episodes, quite a few Trek fans might really like Spotlight.

      There’s a reason why the Center for Inquiry’s “Encyclopedia of Unbelief” has an article on Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) and NOT an article on George Lucas (creator of Star Wars). That’s because Trek largely consists of morality plays (admittedly often schlocky and a tad trite) promoting secular humanist values.

      Of late, Trek movies have gone a bit more the route of rock-em sock-em action, ever since J.J. Abrams took over the franchise.

      1. I think kids today are sophisticated enough that Roddenberry’s style of social justice promotion wouldn’t work as well. You’re not going to see an updated version of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” because everyone today will see through it immediately, undermining the message before it has a chance to sink in. Another example: the updated versions *do* have a multi-racial and multi-ethnicity cast, just like Roddenberry used…and nobody cares; even putting a devout muslim on the crew would probably just be dismissed as PCism or a liberal attention-getter. It wouldn’t get the audience to look at muslims in a different light, the way the original series probably did with blacks, women, and foreigners.

        So I think that even if Abrams had wanted to, he couldn’t just keep with the Roddenberry formula. This is not to say he couldn’t have found an updated and more subtle way to discuss moral issues of the day (Gattaga in the late 90s springs to mind). But it is to say that even morality plays much change with the times to be effective.

  2. Philomena caused such a rush of adrenaline I wanted to break out of my body. If I saw Spotlight it might just end me in seizures.

    The Catholic Church very much rivals any organization on the planet as the least useful for humanity.

  3. A thought only just occurred to me: The Vatican is considered an independent country unto itself, and Catholic priests are notoriously more loyal to the Pope than anything or anyone else. That means, they are effectively hidden bi-nationals, patriotic to a particularly undemocratic regime, plying their political philosophy here and around the rest of the world, like spies!

    And we are supposed to respect them? No wonder they’ve gotten away with so much in the past and probably still getting away with far, far too much, now!

    Cheezopete! The very least we can do is tax them. Their in the political business of using their theocratic regime building to undermine our democracy. I think we should force them to claim Vatican citizenship and then consider how to make use of that to get rid of them when they are caught politicking — or, more accurately, working as agent provocateurs.

  4. This is not only best movie of the year, it is the kind of movies they should be doing more of. Sorry kids.

    This is also what good journalism is all about. Not the crap that we are getting today on the internet and TV most of the time. Any idiot can report the news but few seem to investigate any more. Most of the good newspapers have been stripped of their investigative journalist.

  5. At present it is not at our Big Local Theater, which is well populated with the usual mass-consumption movie sequels that are out now. At the very least, I can wait to rent the DVD.
    Michael Keaton is an amazing actor. If you have not seen Birdman I can highly recommend it. Besides the acting, I was agog at the film editing and musical score. I am not attuned to noticing such things about a movie, but these were so good that even i noticed them.

  6. I vividly remember walking out of the theater that warm September day in Toronto and having to sit down in a cafe for awhile because my hands were shaking too badly to type my email to you, Jerry, with my first impressions of Spotlight, which you kindly published on WEIT and mentioned above. I was, in a far-away time, an altar boy in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and though it never happened to me I had heard rumors of who to keep an eye on. That fear was brought powerfully back to me watching this movie and the suffering of the victims it portrays. I look forward to seeing it again but this time in my hometown courtesy of Michael Moore and his State Theater, only this time my hands will be shaking with cold.

  7. I can’t decide if I’m a bigot.

    At work, they were collecting money for The Good Shepherd which is not only a religious organization but also a Catholic organization. I felt an “ick” factor in giving money to an organization that aligns itself with child rapists, LGBTQ bigots, misogynists & also denies birth control, contributing to the spread of HIV.

    But the other part of me wondered if I was denying someone help that could have gotten it if I wasn’t on my high horse.

    1. Maybe it helps to now that there are theories out there (that got the Prize in economics in Nobel’s memory, I think) that donations are counterproductive. Catastrophe relief and help to self help are – in those theories – exempt as both ethical and productive, but the rest is arguable.

      [The resources goes to cementing the social structure that makes societies dysfunctional in the first place, often as outright corruption despite the oversight. I dunno how much statistics verify or reject those claims.]

      Of course I don’t know what the organization does, so maybe the general case isn’t applicable.

    2. No, you are fine. You are not a bigot. It would only be a consideration, were that agency the only way to reach and help poor people. You can give directly or find secular organizations helping the poor or even consider starting one up.

  8. Nice that a movie critical of religion is so good!

    It’s not for fans of Batman, Star Trek, or Mad Max, what with their eternal and infernal chase scenes.

    ? The only Star Trek chase theme I can think of is the hunt for Khan, which is now a Star Trek epic. Star Wars on the other hand have regular chases of all kinds, it’s a signature theme along with the light sabers et cetera. Jerry may need to watch more movies.

    ADDED IN POSTING: An I see some more comments along the lines of “few movies vs many movies”.

  9. I have Catholics in my family. I always want to ask them why on Earth they want to support such an institution with their time and money. But then, I figure it would only build a fence between us and, in any event, they would have a child-like rational to excuse it all. Maybe I’ll confront them next year.

    1. Yes, one of two don’t do’s, if you want to continue seeing other parts of the family. Religion and politics will almost always widen the gap. Asking how do you justify the impossible to justify without ending up in a bad way will be difficult. I could hardly get through the denial of evolution with one, and this one is more difficult.

  10. Recently, Pope Francis was quoted as saying that only 2% of RC priests are pedophiles, a figure disputed by survivors networks as way too low. says it is closer to 10%, while the Jay report says 4%.

    But I would add that the percent of officials who decided to conceal this is just about 100%, and the evasions put out by the Catholic League and Bill O’Donaghue are almost as stomach-wrenching as the abuse itself.

    1. P.S.
      This movie deserves comparison with “All the President’s Men”. (The reporters is that movie and “Spotlight” are working for Ben Bradlee and Ben Bradlee, Jr. respectively.)

    2. With the total number or Catholic priests, 2%, even if true, hardly sounds reassuring. And the abuse will continue to be widespread at least until priests are allowed to marry. But I have little hope. Religious organizations resist reform like surgery! Every time someone dreams aloud about reformation of Islam, I remember that millenia have not been enough to give Catholic priests marriage rights, and I despair.

      1. I don’t see where the ability to marry has much to do with this. Are you saying that sexual assault of a child is something that can be cured with marriage? I’m afraid that is just not true.

        1. Yes, but it might decrease the number of people with damaging sexual neuroses to the priesthood.

          As it, the Catholic priesthood is the perfect closet for folks with such neuroses.

          1. I understand. Sometimes the religion is perverted beyond my ability to think that low. But not too low for the pedophile.

            1. How can we know if allowing priests to marry would reduce deviants as opposed to repelling non-deviants? The only solution is to address the problem at the root. Why would any guy looking to get married be attracted to an institution that provides safe haven for rapists?

  11. I saw it last night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA (adjacent to Boston). The audience spontaneously clapped after it was over (including me).

    It was moving, tense, and a tour de force to make a movie about hunting up documents (which is what investigative journalism is) that effective.

    I was also wondering if, given the growth of online and decline of print, if it’s the last movie that will show newspapers being printed and sent out on trucks for distribution.

  12. Not to stir anyone’s anger further (note: this sort of preface always ensures the further stirring), but how can we not forget that the apologists for this institution say that secular critics are hypocrites because the ratio of child-raping priests isn’t statistically different than for the general population? Of course, if a company like Apple or Google were found to have 90 child rapists in the ranks and when they were discovered were simply transferred to a similar job in a different office (with approval of the CEO), I can only imagine what the response would be.

    As fed up as people are and were with the RCC, I still think the reaction is mild compared to what it would be if a regular corporation did something like this. Too many people still view the institution as having a direct hotline to God; that is the root problem. Until we view the Church like we do Apple or Google (only far less useful, for none of the Church’s products work), I fear it will retain its insidious grip; especially in the developing world.

    1. Actually, I wouldn’t mind Apple or Google to employ child rapists or other felons who have served their sentences (these people are after all expected to earn their living, once they are out of prison). A programmer’s job is even desirable for such an individual, because it involves little contact with other people and none with children. (Well, there’s a risk of cyberporn, but let’s not dig too deep.)
      The church is different. It involves everyday contact with people of all ages, and they are often vulnerable. This is an extremely dangerous situation. To me, the secular analog of a pedophile priest is a pedophile teacher, doctor, policeman or psychologist.

      1. Actually, I wouldn’t mind Apple or Google to employ child rapists or other felons who have served their sentences (these people are after all expected to earn their living, once they are out of prison).

        That’s a vastly different scenario. I don’t think that child rapists should be deprived of living a satisfying life so long as they’ve been rehabilitated (whatever that means in the particular case). Any punishment should serve as a method to rehabilitate and the fact that felons in America can’t get a decent job after being released is an entirely separate problem. Being a convicted felon of any type, never mind pedophilia carries a severe stigma. But, if major global corporations were moving criminals around while simultaneously avoiding justice for crimes, there would be a global outcry many orders of magnitude greater than what happened to the RCC. Hell, look at the backlash against Monsanto as one example, and this is strictly for business practices.

  13. Per W’pedia, at least it’s profitable, yet only made ~25% over its cost thus far. Elsewhere saw it was #17 last week, grossing about 1% of Star Wars.

    Sigh – the allure and power of fantasy.

  14. Fans of Star Trek realize that by the 23rd Century, such supernatural belief systems have faded into obsolescence. Advances in the understanding of how the human brain functions will have led medical science to solutions on dealing with such behavioral abnormalities. This explains why the Catholic Church and other religious institutions fight so desperately against the future.

  15. Liev Schreiber is one of the executive producers and main star of the series Ray Donovan, which covers the subject matter from the POV of some of the victims.

    An excellent series and well worth seeing. Schreiber shines in the lead role.

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