Evan Williams recently reviewed Spotlight. This film has now won the Best Film at the recent Oscars. This review is reposted below. Evan Williams will soon also write on the Oscar awards in general. John Menadue.
The other night I watched a DVD of Foreign Correspondent, Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful thriller about a newspaperman on the trail of a secret spy ring. Nostalgic as I am for the glory days of print journalism, I love the moment when the paper’s editor yells from his desk: “Hold the front page!” You don’t hear that any more. Films about newspapers – those who own them and those who work for them – tend to be either very funny or very serious.
And a surprising number are cinema classics. Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page was one of the wittiest comedies of the thirties. In Citizen Kane (still considered by many the best film ever made), Orson Welles brilliantly captured the power-hungry paranoia of his ambitious media baron. And two years after Richard Nixon resigned, Hollywood gave us All the President’s Men, recounting one of the great feats of modern investigative journalism – the unmasking of the Watergate scandal by two dogged reporters from the Washington Post. The film collected four Oscars and set a benchmark for the genre.
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (rated M, on general release) is in the same exalted company. It’s gripping, it’s sordid, and it’s desperately sad. In 2001, four journalists from the Boston Globe were assigned by their paper’s newly-appointed editor to investigate allegations against a defrocked priest, John Geoghan, accused of molesting more than 80 boys in Massachusetts. After months of work, the Spotlight team – as they were known – uncovered a pattern of rampant sexual abuse within the Church and a systematic cover-up by senior prelates. It’s a familiar story. A closing title for Spotlight lists scores of cities around the world where similar evidence of abuse has been revealed. And here in Australia, thanks to Julia Gillard, a seemingly endless royal commission continues to enliven evening news bulletins with reports of sleaze and depravity in holy places, though in fairness it must be stressed that the horrors aren’t limited to the Catholic Church. Other religious denominations, high-profile schools, sporting bodies, the armed services – all have endured their share of ignominy. Our latest prime-time penitent was the hapless Peter Hollingworth, former governor-general and archbishop of Brisbane. making a ritual mea culpa for the TV cameras.
With a screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight is little more than a series of conversations. There’s nothing you’d call action – except, perhaps, when some character or other breaks into a run while crossing the newsroom floor. That’s as fast as things get. All is slow, plodding, painstaking – and wholly engrossing – much, as I imagine, like the investigation itself. And what a frustrating business that must have been – with every possible difficulty encountered along the way – legal constraints, reluctant witnesses, ecclesiastical obstruction, privacy laws, confidentiality agreements, the Massachusetts statute of limitations (“That was years ago – these victims were kids!”), not to mention timidity and vacillation in the upper reaches of the Globe’s editorial hierarchy. No one wanted to take on the power and prestige of the church, especially in a city where 54 percent of the population (and no doubt a majority of Globe readers) were Catholic.
In Spotlight, the Peter Hollingworth character – or dare I say, the George Pell character – is Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), head of the Boston archdiocese. There’s a telling early scene when Law is in intimate conversation with the Globe’s editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), newly arrived from the Miami Herald. Baron has gone to the rectory to brief the cardinal on the Globe’s inquiries, and Law’s reaction – not surprisingly – is to urge caution in the interests of Boston’s good name and reputation. “The city flourishes,” says Law, “when its great institutions work together” – in other words, when church and press collude in keeping things quiet. Baron politely disagrees. There are higher values than civic harmony – truth and justice among them. Challenging entrenched authority and tradition is never easy, but the Globe will stick to its guns.
There’s an excellent cast at work here, even if everyone seems a bit downbeat, oddly colourless and subdued. There are no charismatic heroes in Spotlight, no dynamic crusaders, no star turns – just a bunch of hard-working, preoccupied journos doing their job – hitting phones, pouring over ancient church files and library records, searching through press cuttings and door-stopping interviewees while juggling pens and notebooks ( surely there were miniature recording devices in 2001). And everyone looks a bit scruffy. But it rings true. Years ago, when I started as a journalist on the Sydney Morning Herald, reporters were required to wear suits and ties and beards were verboten. Not on the Globe. To complicate things, everyone on the Spotlight team seems to have a Catholic background, including Robbie, the team leader (Michael Keaton), who is very much a part of Boston’s Catholic establishment. Working with him are Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Byron D’Arcy James), all bothered by mixed feelings and divided loyalties.
In a telling scene, an ex-priest, door-stopped at his home, readily and calmly admits to having abused boys, but insists that “I got no pleasure from it.” It’s an odd form of self-absolution. Audiences, I suspect, will get little pleasure from Spotlight, a shocking and angry film and a unique combination of detective thriller and modern morality tale. It is hard to know which is the greater calamity – the evil of paedophile clergy or the existential tragedy now engulfing the Catholic Church, if not the whole of Christendom. Perhaps, in the end, all great institutions survive. As Cardinal Law wryly observes: “The Church deals in centuries.” But what if it doesn’t survive? Can we imagine the headline,” Pope Quits And Shuts Down Vatican”? Hold the front page!
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.