Religious scandals in Spotlight

FILM REVIEW of Spotlight by Don Perlgut. This film, which details the real-life events of how the Boston Globe newspaper broke the story of systematic Catholic clergy child abuse in the United States, is the best film about investigative journalism since All the President’s Men dramatised the Watergate scandal during the Nixon era.

And the superb cast, all portraying real-life characters, provides a great example of ensemble acting.

Spotlight is set in Boston in 2001 and 2002 and provides a fabulous portrayal of a media on the cusp of dramatic digital transformation.

“Spotlight” is the name of the Boston Globe’s investigative team, a group of fiercely independent journalists. In mid-2001, the paper – then owned by the The New York Times – appointed its first editor who had not grown up locally: Marty Baron (played by Liev Schrieber), came from the Miami Herald and was later named by Esquire magazine as the “best news editor of all time”.

Baron was also the Boston Globe’s first Jewish editor; he encouraged the Spotlight team to tackle the simmering child abuse scandal.

With Catholics comprising more than half of the paper’s readership – and the Spotlight team all lapsed Catholics themselves – it took the outsider, a Jewish editor, to force the issue, against both internal resistance and external opposition.

Baron wasn’t the only outsider on the case. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) had long represented numerous child abuse victims suing the Church.

Garabedian’s character points out that as an Armenian, he is not part of Boston’s Catholic “power elite”, and thus able to challenge the status quo. In Boston, religion rules.

Although Baron and Garabedian played important roles in uncovering the scandal, the film concentrates on the work of the Spotlight team: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), team leader Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and researchers Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), following them through their daily grind and the emotional journeys of slowly uncovering what turned out to be one of the biggest religious scandals in American history.

No-one could believe that the Church had systematically covered up and protected so many abusive priests. The paper eventually published 600 reports about the abuse and the team received a Pulitzer Prize.

Spotlight is a “close” and intimate film, powerful and fast-paced, with extraordinary attention to detail by writer/director Tom McCarthy.

Not surprisingly, Spotlight has received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, editing, original script and acting for Ruffalo and McAdams.

Aside from the realistic Boston settings, the sense of verisimilitude is enhanced by the cast: most of the Catholic characters are played by Catholics and Schrieber is Jewish.

As one of the most important contemporary dramatic films made about religion, Spotlight holds far-reaching significance for Australia. The film concludes with an on-screen listing of 105 American cities and 102 dioceses worldwide where sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light: 22 of the international locations are in Australia.

Spotlight is screening in cinemas.

PHOTO:  Michael Keaton (left) and Michael Rezendes in Spotlight.