It was whispered about for years and maybe even decades, but by the 1990s, sexual abuse by Catholic priests was starting to see the light of day. In March 2000, Cardinal R.M. Mahony of the Arhdiocese of Los Angeles issued an apology for the abuses, calling it "one of the more tragic scourges afflicting the church in the latter part of the past century." Pope John Paul II, under whom the scandal seemed to deepen and widen, also issued an apology in 2001, at least for charges lobbied in "certain parts of Oceania": "Sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ."
There are whispers about the whispers, though not as much awareness as you might expect, in director Tom McCarthy's scintillating Spotlight. An All the President's Men for the Catholic abuse scandal in Boston, Spotlight is a fascinating account of what journalism can do and what it can change with its batteries fully charged and its focus clear.
The title refers to the investigative journalism arm of the Boston Globe, which operates (for the purposes of the film, anyway) independent of the rest of the paper. On the heels of a recent story highlighting the lack of inquiry into the crimes of one local priest, the paper's new editor (Liev Schreiber) pushes the Spotlight team to take a closer look, to probe not just the priests themselves but the larger systemic corruption in the Archdiocese of Boston, arguably the most Catholic big city in America.
Director McCarthy has put together a sensational team to investigate the crimes. Michael Keaton plays Robby Robinson, who ran Spotlight and brings the added weight of lots of local Catholic history with him. There is Mark Ruffalo, certain to earn his second straight Oscar nomination, portraying investigative reporter Michael Rezendez, and also Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, more of a junior member of the team when things begin but whose input is pivotal to putting a public face on the abuse.
The scope of the crimes, and the complicity of the church in covering for the men in its charge, is much broader and ascends to higher levels than anyone could have imagined, and so the team is forced to keep digging, faced with the possible backlash of a large Catholic community.
It's early in the season, but Spotlight, at the moment, is the most serious Best Picture contender. It seems unlikely that this won't be one of the most nominated films of the year, thanks to its big ticket cast, heavy subject matter and a crackerjack script (co-written by director McCarthy). The performances are uniformly good, with Ruffalo and Keaton grounding everything with their introspective performances. There is very little flag-waving around the cause; you get the impression that the Spotlight team would bring the same seriousness to unpaid traffic tickets, and the film makes hay out of the fact that Robby Robinson in particular had a chance to blow the lid of these abuses almost a decade earlier but didn't examine his own conscience enough.
No less a biased critic than Vatican Radio has applauded the film's fairness, which should say something about what's at work here: it's not positioned as a takedown but rather a strong reminder that a free press, one that operates in the public interest no matter what, is a vital cog to an informed society. And a better one, for that matter.