Thursday, December 3, 2015


Let Us Prey (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Pariah?)
The Feast of the Epiphany

Spotlight has been getting a lot of Oscar buzz (worthy, I'd say) for its depiction of the journalistic tracking of the systemic abuse of the Catholic Church in its shuffling of known sex-offender priests from one parish to another in order to avoid local scandal. The film is not prurient, not sensationalistic. If anything, it just concentrates on the story of getting the story in the tradition of most "press" movies—a genre usually sneered at by the press. Scrutinizers don't like to be scrutinized in the same way doctors don't like to go under the knife.

Or, as William F. Buckley chortled when asked why he supposed Senator Robert F. Kennedy refused to appear on his conservative discussion show "Firing Line": "Why does baloney reject the grinder?"

But, the reporters of the "Spotlight" feature of The Boston Globe praise Spotlight, even if it does not show them in the best of lights (other than being portrayed by film-stars) because ultimately, through fits and starts, sins of omission and hubris, they did get the story that had been buried under bureaucracy and doctrine and a "gentleman's agreement" between power brokers of government and clergy. They dared to shine a light on the dark corners of the church that had been sheltered in stained glass and "community good" while incidents of sexual misconduct had occurred against the very parishioners most vulnerable and in need of the church. Those victims were lambs to the slaughter, against wolves in shepherd's clothing.

It's enough to shake your everything.

Keaton, Shreiber, Ruffalo, Adams, Slattery and James...scrutinizing.
The only reason the scandal came to light was due to outside influence. Inside influence had been going on for so long it was routine. The film begins with one such incident where a priest is in lock-up, distraught mom and kids are talking to detectives, and a lawyer drives up and is escorted into the back-rooms. Then a priest rushes in. The cops out in front treat it like another day at the office. "And then this happens..." The priests and lawyer skulk back out into the night and drive off, leaving a witness, silently observing. We never learn who that is. It doesn't matter who sees. Nothing will be done about it.

At The Boston Globe, an editor is retiring, and we see his farewell party, the guy getting joshed good-naturedly by owner Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and "Spotlight" editor Walter "Robbie" Robinson (Michael Keaton). The "Spotlight" staff hangs back, they're in the middle of doing a piece on crime stats in Boston, and it's not going well: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is on the phone with the Boston PD getting "no comments;" Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams—thoroughly making up for her role in "The Hunger Games" series) and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James) are at the party having cake and gossiping about the new editor coming in. That seems to be the topic of conversation—Bradlee and Robinson are having the same discussion as well, with Robinson doing the reporter thing—he's taking him out to scrutinize. The new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is not from "around here." So, the townies have to size him up, see who's going to be doing the most bending, them or him.

Baron has been around, and he sees how the newspaper market is changing—the internet is taking over classifieds, other media are faster even though less reliable—so he has it in his head that The Globe has to matter to the people of Boston (not unlike Charles Foster Kane wanting his newspaper "The Inquirer" being as "important" as the gas in a lamp). It has to provide a service that no other source can provide. If the Globe isn't "essential" it will not survive. The "Spotlight" team is one of the things that make the paper stand out, even though "Spotlight" has a reputation for taking things slow, slow, slow in order to do a thorough, grinding job of reporting. Baron spikes that crime report in favor of reviving the old "Geoghan case."
Geoghan had a history of sexual abuse of young boys and was the subject of 87 civil law suits, all public records of which had been suppressed by a court order asked for by the Boston Archdiocese. It is Rezendes' job to get those records, and Baron says he will ask for a court order to release the public records. To a person, the response to this action is: "You want to sue the Church?" No, that's not what he wants to do. But in the Boston bubble, it amounts to the same thing—The Church doesn't want the records released, so to petition to have them make the public records actually public, you have to "fight" The Church.
Rezendes also tries to get more background from prickly lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, who is brilliant in this, as he usually is in everything), who has been representing sexual abuse victims for years, and is reluctant to give anything to the press, as they've been ignoring his entreaties for years. Plus, he has a reputation for being difficult. He's one of the lawyers accused of "turning child abuse into a cottage industry."
Pfeiffer goes another direction: she starts to interview victims of the attacks, provided to her by an organization (SNAP-The Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests) that has been cataloging and offering support to abuse victims—the head of the organization also has a reputation as flighty, unstable and a flake, but his distrust of the press is even greater than Garabedian's, as he's sent information to the Globe in the past, only to see nothing for his efforts. The kids, now adults, are reluctant to come out of the shadows, left with psychological issues, shame, self-loathing, and a sense of betrayal that makes them suspicious of everyone. Robinson oversees the project, throwing his weight around so that Pfeiffer can talk to the local prosecutor (Billy Crudup) who settled most of the cases in court and out of the public eye. He also meets with a friend, attorney Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), who has represented the Church in some cases, and who advises him Robinson that "off the record, I can't talk about it."
Meanwhile, a pattern starts to emerge: by checking the yearly publication of priests and parishes on record in The Globe's archives, the accused priests that have been shuffled off to other parishes, or taken to "treatment centers" are listed as either on "sick leave,""absent" or "unassigned"—official code words to avoid scrutiny or investigation. A telephone interview with a psychologist (an uncredited Richard Jenkins) studying the problem says that it's estimated that 6% of all priests are chronic abusers, a figure the Spotlighters don't believe, until they go through those records and find that, statistically, they add up—87 of Boston's priests have been coded, made to "lie low," then re-assigned to other parishes by the Archdiocese. It's a conspiracy done behind closed confessional doors, orchestrated by the Church, carried out by the courts in secret. As one character remarks "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them."
For the staffers, it is a growing nightmare that they are slow to accept—except for Baron, they're all Catholics, and being in the Boston social circles means they have frequent business with Church hierarchy, and the representatives from sectarian institutions and charities associated with it. Plus, the Archdiocese's Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) is a highly political man who makes sure he is well-connected in the Boston community, even requesting that Baron meet with him when he's first starting his editor job. All the better to influence and manipulate. Manipulation is a strong tool in the Catholic Church...or any church, for all that.
It is the staffers' crisis of faith that is the most interesting aspect to Spotlight. And it's not just faith in their Church that is troubling them (although that is articulated frequently by the Catholic staff, that sense of betrayal). It is also faith in themselves as reporters and "guardians" of the public trust. This is not articulated—by them, but is brought up by Garabedian, by the victims with a "Where were you?"—but is shown in stray looks at each other, by a wordless scene where Pfeiffer shows an old Globe clipping from the archives to Robinson, for whom that failure is very personal. While they're strutting around, thinking themselves noble arbiters of truth, at best they are only making up for lost time, reporting on a cold case, the damage being done long ago. That sense of guilty futility is done without words, eked out by a brilliant cast under the unpretentious direction of Tom McCarthy (he directed The Station Agent, Win Win, The Visitor, all superb films—he also wrote the story for Up with Bob Peterson and Pete Docter). This is a great film, and not in the "hoo-rah" easy kind of crowd-pleasing way. It is tough, in subject matter and on its subjects, and it is one of the best films of the year.
Bradlee, Rezendes, Carroll, Pfeiffer, Baron, and Robinson

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