The gratifying, somber and powerful accuracy of ‘Spotlight’

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I know a priest whose ecclesiastical career in this city was ruined because he had the temerity to praise the Boston Globe Spotlight team’s investigation of the clerical abuse scandal—in front of a bishop.

It’s been well over a decade since the story broke and Cardinal Law was forced to resign. And “Spotlight,” co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy, which opens today in a limited release, is a superb account of the Globe’s exposure of a scandal that still affects Boston.

Full disclosure: my late father, David J. Farrell, was a political columnist for The Boston Globe from 1972-1985. I attended B.C. High in the late 1970s, and one of the priests there, whose sexual abuse of students forms a key piece in the storyline, was my junior year history teacher.

So, watching the movie portray both of these institutions and their leaders so accurately was both strange — and gratifying. I did not expect the film to be so good.

The story opens with a brief prelude, in 1976, showing a young Irish Catholic police officer on the sidelines as he observes the secretive settlement arranged between the family of a molested boy and representatives of the Archdiocese. We learn the priest responsible for the molestation is the notorious Fr. John Geoghan.

Jumping ahead to 2001 and The Boston Globe headquarters, we learn it’s already been a few years since Geoghan, exposed as a serial molester, made headlines. But his is considered an exceptional, sensational case by the news editors. No one is wondering whether Geoghan was symptomatic of a wider problem in the Church.

Globe Spotlight leader Walter Robinson, is played by Michael Keaton in his best role to date.  Robinson is working on a political investigation and also harboring concerns that the new editor in chief, Martin Baron, an outsider just coming on board from The Miami Herald, is going to make more staff cuts at the newspaper, whose readership has been slipping.

But it’s Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, who first tells Robinson to take a closer look at the sex abuse in the diocese to see if it’s symptomatic of something bigger. Not just individual cases of abusive priests—but whether the hierarchy of the Church knew about it before Geoghan hit the front pages. Schreiber underplays his role throughout, coming across more like a professor than a news editor. And it takes a while for Robinson and his team of reporters, played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James, to pick up the ball and really get going.

Ruffalo is superb as Mike Rezendes. He starts off with determination, but is not afraid to reveal his character’s emotional unpreparedness for what he’s about to uncover. As he and his partners begin to unravel the scale of the cover up, we watch as it begins to dawn on him — at home making a meal late at night, standing outside a public records office he’s just been shut out of, and staring at the closed door of a family that doesn’t want to re-open old wounds — that he’s pulling up a curtain on a truly horrific phenomenon.

Similarly, McAdams as Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, and d’Arcy James as reporter Matt Carroll, show us how the truth  that they are prying loose from tortured families and stonewalling attorneys affects them and their own families at home.

Stanley Tucci also delivers by underplaying the role of Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer representing dozens and dozens of families with children molested by priests. Rounding out the cast of the Globe team: John Slattery as editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., who reluctantly allows Robinson to devote more and more resources to a story that he thinks is bound to get them sued.

The one bit of casting that doesn’t quite work to my mind is the veteran Len Cariou as Cardinal Law. Cariou is a little too jovial for the former Boston archbishop, who was always pleasant in person but also much more reserved than Cariou plays him.

That said, one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when, at the end of their first meeting, Law presents newcomer Baron, who is Jewish, with a gift-wrapped package welcoming him to Boston. Once back behind the wheel of his car, Baron opens the wrapping to find a large copy of the Catechism.

The real emotional and moral heart of the story, however, emerges when the reporters themselves gradually realize some of their own culpability in failing to expose the pattern of cover up sooner, not heeding the pleas of victims who had come to them years before.

By the end of the film, everyone — the Church, the politicians, the lawyers, law enforcement, and the media — all bear some measure of complicity in a scandal that enveloped the entire city.

This is the most powerful aspect of the movie. As Tucci’s Garabedian tells Ruffalo, “It takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a village to abuse one.”

John Farrell is the author of “The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology” from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.


Column: Spotlight on the Boston Globe