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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Current Cinema - Max Berghouse reviews Spotlight after an open air preview screening at Mrs Macquarie's Chair

Spotlight Tom McCarthy (Director and co writer), Josh Singer (co writer). Starring: Michael Keaton (Robby Robinson/head of Spotlight investigative team), Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (Sasha Pfeiffer), Brian d'Arcy James (Matt Carroll) – investigative journalists in the Spotlight team, John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jr/Deputy editor of Boston Globe newspaper), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron/editor of Boston Globe newspaper), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garebian/plaintiffs' attorney for abused Catholic children), Len Cariou (Bernard Law/Cardinal – Archbishop of Boston). Anonymous Content, First Look Media, Participant Media and another (production companies). eOne films (Australian distributor), (2015), 128 minutes.

This film seems to have received universally adulatory reviews, which fortunately or otherwise, I don't share. I do not doubt for a moment the overwhelming veracity of the storyline, perhaps its complete and absolute veracity. That "veracity" relates to the decades long abuse by Catholic religious, especially priests, of minors and its conscious cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy, and in particular Cardinal Bernard Law. My objection is that while it is consciously accurate, this happens at the cost of drama.

The plotline is really quite simple. An incoming principal editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, unmarried (and possibly with the implications this might entail) and Jewish to boot, decides to re-open long-standing but desultory investigations into improper behaviour by Catholic priests and its hierarchy. The Spotlight team which despite being the longest standing investigative journalistic team in the country, appears to be housed in a basement, windowless office, is delegated to the task. The team members are all (lapsed) Catholics who conduct their investigations without any sense of "divided loyalties" and perhaps this should be so. The investigation is patient, methodical and professional. This produces some results including some excellent and quite painful vignettes of persons, now adult, previously victimised and with quite clear and current disabilities, being interviewed by members of the team.

But there is also chance good fortune such as when the team discovers that predatory priests who are transferred from parish to parish, are featured in the Archdiocese's very substantial directory of its affairs published annually (it is like a telephone book of a substantial country town) as having been on "sick leave" or similar. By matching year upon year, it is apparent that the predation has continued over a very long period of time and involves a much greater number of priests than previously indicated. Some explanation is given through telephone contact with a psychotherapist, former priest, Richard Sipe that statistically 6% of Catholic clergy will be predatory and in diocese of 1500 priests, that indicates 90 predators. In fact investigations concluded clearly that there were 87. Just as an aside, I think written work by Sipe on this very subject had been previously published, well before the investigations shown in the film but it does indicate the way in which the information can be conveyed dramatically, rather than say one of the journalists reading from the book.

Len Cariou
The capacity to successfully cover up these "matters" is very subtly but clearly shown to rest upon the extraordinary power of Cardinal Bernard Law – an excellent Machiavellian performance by the distinguished stage actor Len Cariou. In fact all performances are completely without blemish and this is probably because the actors are servants of the facts and the material, rather than being given "starring" roles. There are no histrionics, sudden and unexpected revelations just the patient and fairly emotionally uninvolved work of the journalists. There is one particularly affecting interview by Sasha of a particularly disturbed and gay abused victim. Despite the pain the interview is causing him she remains absolutely committed to getting the truth. Stanley Tucci gives a completely absorbing performance, one which engages as to his general humanity while all the while, making clear why he was looked at ascance by others particularly defendants' lawyers.

Examples of the almost perfect recreation of a journalist' s real working life abound through this film. Unfortunately as previously indicated, I think this is a at the expense of drama. Drama heightens and remodels "reality" to intensify our perception of that reality. This is where the film really comes undone. It might be said that a viewer comes to a film like this – one which is substantially documentary in form, with the expectation of the normal dramatic imperatives such as the background of the journalists and the expectation that they will be disparate and to some extent competitive will feature. There is a fact very little of this. It may be that my expectations are so deeply ingrained that I cannot readily accept a change of convention. And ultimately I can't complain because the director decided to do something in relation to his film whereas I would have preferred something else. For what the film sets out to do, it does it accurately and quite clinically. I found it emotionally distant and increasingly uninvolving because it is really very long.

There is a theory in relation to documentary films that notwithstanding any original intention in relation to the purpose of the film, if the director comes across something interesting, as it were by the by, then he should follow the "interest", rather than the "purpose". Given the documentary style of the film I think the same comments apply. There was so much in the film which was really critical to an understanding of "how and why" which was simply shown without any explanation or real understanding – so it seems to me. During the earlier scenes Marty Baron is informed that he is expected to meet with the Cardinal Archbishop, as previous editors have done. Quite apart from the fact that Baron is Jewish, that the paper should feel the necessity of his meeting the Cardinal, seems extraordinarily strange. The action takes place in the early 21st-century and the really substantial changes of Vatican II were taking place from about 1965 onwards.

There are plenty of cities with a large Catholic population: Sydney, London, et cetera. It really is hard to conceive that a Catholic prelate should have such power. Equally that he, Cardinal Law should be so emotionally insensitive (as he is portrayed in the film) as to offer Marty Baron a "guide to the city of Boston" which is a copy of the catechism of the Catholic Church. Similarly the covering up of the depredations of the clergy is facilitated by police and a singularly large number of lawyers. That they would cover-up predators over long periods of time and multiple offences, certainly is beyond my experience of Catholic life. This seemed to me to be more interesting than the detail in fact shown, because I genuinely cannot imagine this systemic cover-up in the lay community, pretty much anywhere. Because it is largely unexplained – and it is mystifying – it drew more of my attention.

I should also note that in the main the film is not anti-Catholic. It makes only passing judgement on predatory priests, indicating that they are emotionally stunted. It makes clear that those involved in the cover-up, are certainly to blame but it certainly does not draw a harsh judgement over the entire Church, even though the final scene it lists dioceses where predation has taken place and the list seems to run to many hundreds if not thousands.

Lastly having grown up with cinema and with the depiction of "America" as substantially New York on the East Coast and Los Angeles or San Francisco on the West, it is always welcome to see a "provincial" city like Boston displayed in its neighbourhoods and suburbs – far less glamorous than the usual glamorous reality. Not all the production took place in Boston itself. Some scenes were in Hamilton Ontario, but looked nonetheless convincing to me. 
Photo: Lynn Wood

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