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Spotlight: a Reaction

I haven't talked to my high school friend Brian d'Arcy James face-to-face in probably 15 years.  I think the last time was way back when he was starring in TITANIC on Broadway.  Still, I follow what he's up to.  Mostly he does Broadway shows (look up SOMETHING ROTTEN to see what I mean), but every so often he makes a foray into television or the movies, and it's always fun to catch him.  So I was really looking forward to SPOTLIGHT.

SPOTLIGHT focuses on a small group of reporters at the Boston Globe as they work to uncover and report on the horrifying scope of the pedophilia crimes and cover-ups in the Catholic church.  The movie has been glowingly reviewed elsewhere, and this isn't so much a review as my own reaction, both as a movie-goer and as a person.

The main reason I wanted to see the movie was that Brian was in it.  He plays Matty Carroll, one of the reporters at Spotlight, the investigative arm of the Globe.  I told Darwin the movie had finally arrived in the Detroit Metro area, but he was clearly uninterested.  "Let me put it this way," I said.  "I am going to see this movie today.  You can come with me or you can stay home."  Darwin feels left out when I do things without him, so he elected to come.

We timed things to arrive only a few minutes before the movie started.  It was a Saturday at 5:00 on a holiday weekend.  Who was going to be there?

To our surprise, the theater was packed.  A great many audiences members were older, in their sixties and seventies.  (Later I realized many of the victims discussed in the movie would be that age today.)  Darwin and I were forced to sit in the whiplash seats way down front, and even after we found spots, yet more people filed in.  At last the movie began.

The film totally threw me, and this is hard to do.  It's hard to figure out where to start talking about it.

(I don't know if it's possible to spoil this movie.  It's based on reality, and everyone knows how the ending comes out.  However, in case you've been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears or something, what follows reveals a fair amount about the action.)

The movie stays tight with the Spotlight reporters.  It follows them through the dogged leg work of uncovering a sickening, horrifying scandal that grows bigger and bigger at every turn, but there's no action. This is a drama, not a thriller.  The movie takes place in relentlessly ordinary places--in records basements and among bookshelves and in judge's offices and at kitchen tables and on front porches.  The reporters are as far from glamorous as you can get.  Brian is a Hollywood handsome man, but you wouldn't know it in this movie.  The awful mustache and bad haircut are typical of a man who pays little attention to his appearance to focus on his work.  The camera often focuses on Michael Keaton, the Spotlight editor, and shows his face as a wreck of wrinkles.  Rachel McAdams, another reporter, usually shows up disheveled, with poorly-applied makeup.  It looks like Mark Ruffalo, the final reporter, and Brian are both carrying some middle-age spread, but if you look closely, you can see they both have athletic builds and they've created a skillful illusion using costuming--baggy khakis, bad sweaters--and carefully bad posture. These are ordinary shlubs who sit behind desks and deal with paper and telephones, not action heroes who pack pistols and punch bad guys.  Only Billy Crudup as the smarmy lawyer McLiesh is allowed to be a snazzy dresser.

The settings show much the same skilled banality.  Salt is scattered carelessly across a restaurant table.  Kitchen cupboards show wear around the edges.  Eyeglasses are smudged around the edges.  And looming over everything is the church.  Church towers glare down over tracts of houses.  Cathedrals frame parks.  Church bells ring on city streets.  A parochial school's windows stare across the street to the Globe's office.

But we never, ever see inside the church.  There are no scenes of cardinals and bishops gathered in dark spaces trying to decide what to do about these upstart reporters.  We only see the results of the church's machinations--empty files of court documents, lawyers who refuse to speak, adult abuse victims with needle tracks on their arms or who weep unexpectedly in a park after telling a reporter how a priest coerced him into giving oral sex when he was twelve.  We see the horror on Matty's face when he realizes one of the pedophile priests is now living quietly half a block away from Matty's own house.  (Matty has children of his own.)

We don't see courtroom drama, either.  The one moment it looks like we might, when Ruffalo's character is watching a Catholic judge hear arguments about releasing documents that would damage the church, the camera pulls away to Ruffalo's conversation with a rival reporter.  And in any case, the judge doesn't issue her ruling right away--it comes weeks and weeks later.  Over the phone.  This is not The Good Wife.

But the movie is never dull.  The director is highly skilled at creating tension and excitement during what were, in real life, long paperwork searches.  He and the cast show us the stakes at every moment, both personal ones and wide-ranging ones.

Each reporter has his or her own bailiwick.  Brian plays the relentless researcher who can find anything in print, and never mind the dead rat in the basement.  McAdams is the good friend who gets reluctant victims to talk (including a retired priest who unexpectedly and happily babbles about the boys he's raped).  Ruffalo thrusts and stabs at bureaucrats and lawyers who refuse to talk, using words like weapons.  And Keaton pals around with high-rollers, pulling out information and dealing threats over glasses of scotch.  Their excitement at discovering something important becomes our own.

As the scope of the crimes and coverups grows, and the reporters realize that they aren't dealing with three priests, or even 13, but 90--and that just in Boston--the largely silent audience gasped and murmured.  Their quiet question: how many monsters are living among us even now?

At the very end, the story has broken and Mark Ruffalo's character takes a copy to a lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci).  Garabedian has been working with priest abuse victims for decades and has tried to get the story into the news before, but either reporter apathy or active interference by the Catholic church got in the way.  Garabedian glances over the newspaper, thanks Ruffalo, and shoos him out of the office.  Why?  He has clients waiting--a mother and two small children.  The children were both raped by a priest, the church is offering a settlement to cover it up, and Garabedian's work continues.  Just because the story breaks doesn't mean the crisis has ended.

Brian has the only two really funny moments in the film.  One comes when he drops a pile of the newspapers that break the story on the front porch of the pedophile priest in his neighborhood.  The other is in a scene with Rachel McAdams.  He says he's working on a book to take his mind off the scandal.

"What kind?" she asks.

"Horror," he says wryly, and the audience laughed.

Just before the credits roll, the movie lists other cities that have reported pedophilic attacks by Catholic priests.  Three columns of tightly-packed text appears on the screen, and the audience gasped in shock.

And then the text was replaced by another three-column set.

And then by another.

I don't know why, but this is the point where I started to cry.  It was awful.  I couldn't stop myself.  The screen blurred and I couldn't read anymore.

When the cast credits rolled, no one in the audience moved.  Every single person remained motionless in their seats, as did I.  We were a good way into the credits before we were able to get to our feet and shuffle toward the exit.

I overheard people conversing in hushed voices.

"That was a good movie.  Harsh, but good.  More people need to see it."

"I've always been anti-New England.  Now I have a new reason to hate Boston."

We can't forget this.  We can't let this drop.  No one is doing enough to stop it--and make no mistake, it's still going on.

Go see the movie.  Forget The Hunger Games and The Good Dinosaur. This is the movie everyone needs to see.

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