Film Review: ‘Spotlight’

spotlight Venice Film Review
Courtesy of Open Road

Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams play the Boston Globe journalists who shook the Catholic Church to its core in Tom McCarthy's measured and meticulous ensemble drama.

It’s not often that a director manages to follow his worst film with his best, but even if he weren’t rebounding from “The Cobbler,” Tom McCarthy would have a considerable achievement on his hands with “Spotlight,” a superbly controlled and engrossingly detailed account of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread pedophilia scandals and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church. Very much in the “All the President’s Men”/“Zodiac” mold of slow-building, quietly gripping journalistic procedurals, this measured and meticulous ensemble drama sifts through a daunting pile of evidence to expose not just the Church’s horrific cycles of abuse and concealment, but also its uniquely privileged position in a society that failed its victims at myriad personal, spiritual and institutional levels. The result may be more sobering and scrupulous than it is cathartic or revelatory, but with its strong narrative drive and fine cast, “Spotlight” should receive more than a fair hearing with smarthouse audiences worldwide.

As with so many movies drawn from controversial real-life events, any attempt at damage control by the organization under scrutiny could merely wind up boosting the film’s commercial and cultural profile when Open Road releases it Nov. 6 Stateside. As such, Catholic officials might be disinclined to take up arms against “Spotlight” as vocally as they did with “Philomena” (2013), which invited legitimate criticism with its cartoonishly villainous Irish nuns and other dramatic liberties. McCarthy’s picture is all the more authoritative for its comparative restraint: Perhaps realizing the number of different ways they could have tackled a narrative of this density, the director and his co-writer, Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”), have shrewdly limited themselves to the journalists’ perspective, ensuring that everything we learn about the scandal comes to us strictly through the Globe’s eyes and ears.


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There are no triumphant, lip-smacking confrontations here, no ghoulish rape flashbacks or sensationalistic cutaways to a sinister clerical conspiracy behind closed doors. There is only the slow and steady gathering of information, the painstaking corroboration of hunches and leads, followed by a sort of slow-dawning horror as the sheer scale of the epidemic comes into focus. When a reporter notes that he’d love to see the looks on the faces of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) and other Boston Archdiocese officials, it’s a measure of the film’s rigor that it refuses to oblige.

The sole exception to this ground rule is the prologue, set on a wintry 1976 night at a Boston police station, where a priest named Father John Geoghan is briefly held and then quietly released into the hands of the Archdiocese. Twenty-seven years later, in July 2001, the horrific consequences of that incident have been brought to light, with allegations that the now-defrocked Geoghan molested more than 80 young boys during his time in the priesthood. The Globe runs a few stories but little follow-up, until newly hired top editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who’s determined to bring a new urgency to the newspaper’s coverage and boost its local impact, turns the beat over to Spotlight, a four-person investigative team led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).

The search proceeds slowly but on multiple fronts. Hard-headed reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) works doggedly to secure the cooperation of Mitchell Garabedian (a spry Stanley Tucci), the notoriously larger-than-life lawyer who’s representing 86 plaintiffs in the Geoghan case, and also to unseal sensitive documents that the Church has successfully buried until now. Another Spotlight writer, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), digs into abuse claims that have been filed against other local priests, interviewing victims and cornering top attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup, slick), whose own attempts to hold the Church to account have done little to keep them from, in Robinson’s words, “turning child abuse into a cottage industry.”

That thread is pursued still further by reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who discovers an ingenious method of tracing those pedophile priests whose ongoing offenses were not only known but actively enabled by the Archdiocese — usually by sending them to treatment centers before reassigning them to new parishes, where they were free to prey upon children anew. Working with ace d.p. Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy directs in a clean, fluid style as he traces the story from the Boston Globe newsroom (the camera often following staffers through the corridors in lengthy tracking shots) to the city’s low-income margins, where priests reliably went after the most vulnerable kids they could find.

As the investigation grinds on for months, with Howard Shore’s score busily marking the passage of time in the background, Robinson and his team realize their job is not just to expose “a few bad apples” (at least 87 priests in the Boston area may be offenders, enough to qualify as a genuine psychiatric phenomenon), but also to prove the existence of a systemic cover-up at the highest levels of Church — one that goes beyond Cardinal Law and extends into the very heart of the Vatican itself. The question becomes not just what to publish but when to publish, as the reporters must figure out how to write the most commanding piece they can before they’re scooped by the competition — or before word leaks back to the Church itself, which is well equipped to fight a public-relations war, especially in Boston.

Even without the onscreen presence of Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father famously steered the Washington Post through Watergate, “All the President’s Men” would be the obvious touchstone here. Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, “Spotlight” is a magnificently nerdy process movie — a tour de force of filing-cabinet cinema, made with absolute assurance that we’ll be held by scene after scene of people talking, taking notes, following tips, hounding sources, poring over records, filling out spreadsheets, and having one door after another slammed in their faces. When the Spotlight investigation is temporarily halted in the wake of 9/11, we’re reminded that the film is also a period piece, set during a time when print journalism had not yet entered its death throes. Like the American remake of “State of Play” (in which McAdams also played a journalist), McCarthy’s film includes a loving montage of a printing press, busily churning out the next morning’s edition — a valedictory sequence that may move old-school journalists in the audience to tears.

The story’s newsgathering focus ultimately creates a level of distance from its subject that works both for the film and against it. As information-system dramas go, “Spotlight” doesn’t have the haunting thematic layers of “Zodiac,” and it never summons the emotional force of the 1991 miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent,” still the most devastating docudrama ever made about child abuse within the Catholic Church. Many of the victims depicted here — like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), who movingly recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Paul Shanley — function in a mostly expository manner, offering up vital but fleeting insights into the psychology of the abusers and the abused, but without taking pride of place in their own story.

Where the film proves extraordinarily perceptive is in its sense of how inextricably the Church has woven itself into the very fabric of Boston life, and how it concealed its corruption for so long by exerting pressure and influence on the city’s legal, political and journalistic institutions. Given the blurrier-than-usual separation of church and state, and the fact that the newspaper’s own readership includes a high percentage of Irish Catholics, it’s no surprise that it falls to an outsider like Baron — a Florida native and the first Jewish editor to take the helm at the Globe — to play hardball with the Archdiocese. If there’s anything that keeps “Spotlight” from devolving into a simplistic heroic-crusaders movie, it’s the filmmakers’ refusal to let the Globe itself off the hook, pointing out the numerous times the paper’s leaders glossed over reports of abuse that landed on their doorstep.

As he demonstrated in films like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” McCarthy has always had a nicely understated touch with actors, and his ensemble here is a model of low-key excellence. The heftiest roles go to Keaton, who presents Robinson as a flawed but strong, soul-searching leader, and Ruffalo, whose passionately committed Rezendes gets to display the most energy and emotional range (including one of the film’s few excessively histrionic moments). McAdams imbues Pfeiffer with sensitivity and grit, while D’Arcy James brings understated shadings to Carroll, a hard-working family man who’s alarmed to learn that a suspected perpetrator is living in his neighborhood.

Slattery, Tucci and Schreiber all shine in small yet vital roles, while the cast also includes sharp work by Jamey Sheridan and Paul Guilfoyle as two Church-connected friends who try to talk Robinson down from his publish-or-parish stance. We recognize them immediately — and perhaps a bit of ourselves — as members of a great swath of decent yet compromised humanity, the proverbial good men who do nothing and allow evil to flourish.

Film Review: 'Spotlight'

Reviewed at Open Road Films screening room, Los Angeles, Aug. 25, 2015. (In Venice Film Festival — noncompeting; Telluride Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 128 MIN.


An Open Road Films release, presented in association with Participant Media and First Look Media, of an Anonymous Content and Rocklin/Faust production. Produced by Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Blye Pagon Faust. Executive producers, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Pierre Omidyar, Michael Bederman, Bard Dorros, Tom Ortenberg, Peter Lawson, Xavier Marchand. Co-producers, Kate Churchill, Youtchi von Lintel.


Directed by Tom McCarthy. Screenplay, Josh Singer, McCarthy. Camera (color), Masanobu Takayanagi; editor, Tom McArdle; music, Howard Shore; music supervisor, Mary Ramos; production designer, Stephen Carter; art director, Michaela Cheyne; set decorator, Shane Vieau; set designers, William Cheng, John MacNeil; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound, Glen Gauthier; visual effects supervisor, Colin Davies; visual effects producer, J.P. Giamos; visual effects, Spin VFX; stunt coordinators, JG, Branko Racki; associate producer, David Mizner; assistant director, Walter Gasparovic; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee.


Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton.

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  1. says:


  2. katmckee1 says:

    did you really mispell ‘perish’ as ‘parish’ in this article?? so surprising.

  3. buffalobilly says:

    wow, im half in and its lumberously slow.
    cant understand what ruffalo says: his mouth half shut.
    glad they deal with the subject,
    hope the last half is edited better….

  4. Jerry Elliott says:

    To my way of thinking, here’s what happened:

    I was a young Catholic boy and an alter boy in a Catholic school in the early 1950’s. Back then being gay was less than acceptable – especially in the Catholic Church. It was a grave and mortal sin to the practitioner of the gay lifestyle. Around the age of 12 or 13 (puberty) many young men came to the realization that there was something different about them. They were really not attracted to girls, but rather attracted to other boys. At about that same age these young men are encouraged to “pray for vocations” and these prayers, for many of our young gay men, became the answer to all their prayers! “That’s it! I’ll go into the priesthood. I won’t have to worry about being gay, and hiding it from everyone. I won’t have to worry about fending off questions from relatives: ‘Have you got a girl friend yet?’ I’ll become a priest. Priests are celibate. I won’t have to worry about my sexuality one-way or the other. Priests are celibate.”

    So our young man starts his journey in the seminary to avoid future ridicule and eternal damnation. And what does he find when he gets there? He finds homosexuality everywhere:

    Studies by Wolf and Sipe from the early 1990s suggest that the percentage of priests in the Catholic Church who admitted to being gay or were in homosexual relationships was well above the national average for the United States of America.[10] Elizabeth Stuart, a former convener of the Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement claimed, “It has been estimated that at least 33 percent of all priests in the RC Church in the United States are homosexual.”

    The John Jay Report suggested that “homosexual men entered the seminaries in noticeable numbers from the late 1970s through the 1980s”, and available figures for homosexual priests in the United States range from 15–58%. Other sources suggest 60% – 66%. [1]

    Turns out the seminaries of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70, were filled with sexual activity between seminarians. So these gay young men graduate and become priests. They are disbursed to churches be begin their life’s work. What are missing are their sexual companions so it’s back to celibacy. Of course the urges are still there and the commitment to celibacy is long gone. So where does our young priest turn for sexual gratification? Where he started, of course – back to the seminary to visit old friends and “companions” that have not yet graduated and meet new younger ones that will be there longer. According to his 1995 testimony, my family’s former pedophile priest used to frequent the “Bath Houses” that dotted the areas surrounding downtown Minneapolis in the 1950’s. Then there is the confessional where he will hear confessions of young men who are as sexually confused as he was at the age. For these young men he will suggest additional counseling outside the confessional – perhaps in the rectory. The rest is history.

    The last 30 – 35 years have been much kinder to our gay population while they have been devastating for the Catholic Church.

    For our gay population, being openly gay is now acceptable to most people. In many states it is illegal to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation. A bill was proposed and voted on by our legislature defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. The bill was not supported by the people and was shot down. The bill’s only major supporter was, you guessed it, the Catholic Arch Diocese of Minneapolis & St. Paul. The blo-back was enormous.

    For the Catholic Church, 10 months later Gay marriage became legal in Minnesota and the Arch Bishop of the Arch Diocese of Minneapolis & St. Paul was forced by the Pope to resign amid allegations of covering up illegal acts of pedophilia by priests in his diocese and simply moving them from parish to parish when complaints were registered by parents and the young men themselves.

    From the early 1980’s when being gay became more acceptable until now when gay marriage is legal,

    • Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the Church nationwide.
    • The Church has spent millions and millions of dollars to settle these suits.
    • The church has been forced to close hundreds of parishes, merge them with other parishes and sell the buildings to developers to raise money to pay off judgments against pedophile priests.
    • Class sizes at our St. Paul Seminary have dropped from 60 – 90 per year to 0 – 4.
    • Older priests are forced to put off retirement until their 80’s, their health gives out or death.

    I feel like we live in a much physically and mentally healthier world today than we did in the 1950’s, especially for our gay brothers and sisters and specifically for our young Catholic boys who are no longer recruited into the sex trade seminaries.

  5. Cecil B Devine says:

    It´s a great example of modern American Journalism in action. A cover-up of a cover-up…

    “Hey chief! What should we say about this 9/11 thing?”
    “Dig out that 25 year old story about pedophilia Jimmy.. and see if you can get an interview with Superman about his new outfit!”

  6. Great movie. Without the courage of the Boston Globe, many victims and newspapers would not have written about pedophile priests. To some this movie moves slowly, but it demonstrates how many reporters had to speak to victims and other sources before writing how corrupt the Catholic Church is.

    I am a victim from North Carolina and was raped by a pedophile priest when I was five years old. Without the Boston Globe breaking this story, I doubt I would have received a small settlement from the Raleigh, NC diocese.

    The FBI still hasn’t found the child pornography that Catholic pedophile priests made with me. I think it would be legally impossible for every rectory to be searched. But I cannot forgive the Catholic Church for destroying my life.

  7. Bill says:

    Sorry, this movie was terrible. Slow is not appropriate to describe its pacing, which is more like glacial. In a story where we all know the outcome, what would have made for an interesting dramatization would have been intense shocking depth of detail (which the film lacks), or engaging interesting characters, (which, while their are competent actors abound in this film, also has none.) I was bored for the entire film. Keaton, Schreiber, McAdams, all actors I admire, are incredible replaceable.
    Ruffalo. Mark Friggin Ruffalo. America, it’s time. Get over Mark Ruffalo. There is no joy watching him in any role, his movies are boring and pretentious (like his fans),

    • buffalobilly says:

      agreed. so slow that u wonder why they made it. unreal directing… a boring 70’s tv movie of week.
      sad, considering the subject matter, a better attempt was not made ..

  8. I saw Spotlight today. I “rushed” to see it. It deals with an important subject. It is, in no way, a great movie. It’s kind-of boring and doesn’t have much feeling. Reporters going after a story, always with a pad in their hands. Thin characters. I’m going against the tide here, but I just did not like it very much. From what I’ve read, this film is going after Oscars. I hope Oscar voters don’t confuse important subject matter with good film-making. But they probably will.

    • Eileen says:

      Ditto! I recently watched Spotlight for the first time, twice, and your review echoes my impressions. While I applaud McCarthy’s courage in tackling this vital subject, and there were moments that worked, overall I found the script, character development, and execution to be weak. Admirably, the filmmakers chose not to exploit victim accounts to increase dramatic effect and ticket sales. But restraint can go too far, as it does here, resulting in a lack of connection with any character or storyline. The film feels shallow and half-baked. Even what should have been an emotional highlight — devout Nana Pfeiffer’s first reading of the exposé — felt clinical and undeveloped, as did the entire film. I wanted to love it and shout from the rooftops, “You must see this movie!” Instead, all I felt after both viewings was, “Eh.” A shame.

  9. Apologies for my earlier link which was broken.

    I very much look forward to seeing ‘Spotlight’ when it is screened. My congratulations to all involved.

  10. snapjudy says:

    We encourage everyone to see the “Spotlight” movie when it comes out this November. Sadly these crimes and cover ups continue to this day.
    Judy Jones, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

  11. Please show some respect when commenting on this topic.

    Spotlight Official Trailer #1 (2015) – Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton Movie

    “We have two stories here, the story about a degenerate clergy and the story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. Which story do you want us to write cuz we’re writing one of them”. If both are true, why write only one of them?

    The level of legal abuse in the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse is the reason many survivors could take no more of it and sadly took their lives instead.

    When I met with Pope Francis to outline the true horror of this abuse of children by self-professed ministers of the Living God, I mentioned to those present that the Catholic Church raided the nest consigning its youth to lifelong torment and shame which for some had become unbearable.

    I am Mark Vincent Healy (Ireland), survivor campaigner for the establishment of proper care for all survivors and their families, in the restoration if not stabilisation of their lives.

    Thank you to all who made this film.

  12. DPierre says:

    Gee, another anti-Catholic hit job from Hollywood?


  13. LOL says:

    Keaton played this role in Ron Howard’s The Paper>/I>.

  14. S. A. Young says:

    Just reading this review, chock full of the names of the real life players in this drama brings back the emotional responses I felt reading The Globe series at the time. I’m sure McCarthy felt the same reading the script and then working with the material. He was a student at Boston College at the time.

  15. Kay Ebeling says:

    Can’t wait for Spotlight, meanwhile read more true stories of pedophile priests and their victims at City of Angels Blog by Kay Ebeling, a journalist who is also one of thousands of survivors in the USA today

  16. brady1987 says:

    This issue is a thing of the past. Pope Francis says that according to a study by people at Oxford 2% of priests are pedophiles. In June of this year, he also created a court to judge bishops who fail to protect children from abusive priests.

    • Josie says:

      Hmm…guess you’ve not heard of the recent resignation of the Archbishop of St Paul/Minn over failing to adequately address abuses in that diocese…some of which occurred as recently as 2011. Unfortunately, this is still very much “a thing of the present.”

    • therealeverton says:

      Don’t even know where to start on this collection of nonsense,

  17. Jeremy says:

    “Cartoonish villain Irish nuns”
    Please experience real Irish nuns before deciding the filmmaker was making cartoonish characters.

    It was a hugely accurate depiction of the characters involved.

    • Responder says:

      Check out Peter Mullan’s brilliant 2003 film THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, which examined real-life institutionalized abuse by Irish nuns at girls asylums in the 1960s. Heart-breaking and still nightmarish.

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