Occasionally, a critic — even one of the strictly amateur variety such as myself — is compelled to offer an opinion that makes them feel like a bit of an asshole. Maybe there’s a flick you didn’t care too much for, but you’ve gotten to know one or more of the principles involved in its production either via social media or, in rare instances, the real, actual world, and they seem like genuinely nice folks who you’d hate to piss off. This has happened to me more than once and I take no particular joy and/or pride in it, trust me. Or maybe there’s a new film out from a director whose work you genuinely admire but his or her latest project just isn’t up to snuff. This is much more common, and you can generally let it roll like water off your back. Or perhaps there’s a movie making the rounds that’s so well-regarded among everyone else that your own negative review on it will mark you as something of a pariah among the rest of the “critical class.” This, frankly, shouldn’t bug you in the least.
These scenarios can all be dealt with to one degree or another and needn’t leave a stain on your conscience for very long, but damn — once in the deepest, bluest of moons, you don’t just offer an opinion that makes you feel like “a bit of an asshole,” but like a major asshole. Today, I’m sorry to say, is just such a day.
Director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight was the surprise winner of the “Best Picture” award for 2015 at the most recent Oscars ceremony, and is certainly an important, topical, and highly accurate procedural story that’s well worth seeing — even though I didn’t see it myself until well after it took home the biggest prize the Academy can bestow on a film (I saw it this afternoon, to be specific, at the neighborhood discount theater). So it’s not that I didn’t like the flick — please don’t get me wrong. But I’m kinda glad that I waited to see it “on the cheap,” and to be honest, I probably could have kept waiting until it hit DVD or even Netflix. That’s because my first thought upon leaving the theater was — well, why don’t we just save that for the end, since it’s what made me feel like a, as I described it, “major asshole.” Which plenty of folks will say I am anyway, but still —
The “pluses” on offer here are many, of course, but most fall squarely on the shoulders of the cast. Michael Keaton plays Boston Globe editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, who’s been tasked by his new boss, Marty Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber) with digging into the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal with a bit more vigor than the paper has in the past. Grinding the shoe leather in a concerted effort to break the story wide open are the ace reporters of his “Spotlight” unit (hence the title and all) Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who are all given various opportunities to shine throughout the course of the film and duly make the most of them, particularly Ruffalo. Overseeing matters is John Slattery as legendary newsman Ben Bradlee, Jr., and a trio of lawyers played by Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Jamey Sheridan each impact the case, for good or ill, from their respective positions. It’s a superb group of actors that’s been assembled here, and McCarthy is to be credited for getting terrific work out of each and every one of them.
What I’m not prepared to give him credit for, though, is having any discernible directorial style to speak of (even the tired and overused faux- “guerrilla filmmaking” or “street level” tropes would have been preferable to the dull, “point-and-shoot” approach that he takes throughout here), nor for mining any of the quite obviously rich human tragedy that underpins this frankly ground-shaking series of events for dramatic effect. We only see a couple of victims for a very short time, only meet one of the accused priests (who’s both disturbingly confessional and even more disturbingly obtuse) for about two minutes tops, and the rest of the flick is just pure nuts-and-bolts newspaper work that McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer are serving up. It does an okay job with that material, sure, but it’s not going to make you forget All The President’s Men or anything — what’s really remarkable, though (and I don’t mean that in a complimentary sense) is how it’s pretty darn hard to feel a genuine sense of emotional detachment from a film about one of the most wealthy and powerful organizations in the world covering up for a bunch of friggin’ child molesters within its own ranks, yet somehow Spotlight manages to pull it off. I’d be tempted to call it a perverse sort of miracle, even, but the Catholic church might be tempted to take credit for it, so I won’t. Towards the end they attempt to imbue each of the reporters and editors with a bit of a personal connection to the story they’ve spent, by then, literally months working on, but it’s a case of “too little, too late,” and it both feels forced and falls flat.
And so we’ve arrived at the “why I feel like an asshole” moment that I started talking about roughly 800 words back. And it all comes down to that thought in my head as I left the theater. I’ll give you the exact words that ran through my mind in a moment, but the reason I hated myself for even thinking them is because the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal is an absolutely devastating story whose size and scope is almost beyond comprehension at this point. It’s a genuine worldwide epidemic that has destroyed countless lives when its victims turned to drugs, alcohol, or even suicide to either mask or end their suffering. It’s been going on for God only knows how long, it continues to go on to this day, and even after paying out who knows how many millions (not nearly enough, if you ask me) of dollars in settlements, the same church leaders who spent the better part of their lives and careers sweeping it under the rug still don’t seem to grasp why it’s such a big deal. I might be a major asshole, but these guys are unconscionably major assholes.
So, yeah — this is a story that needed to be told. And I’m glad it was. And no one should ever forget it. The victims deserve not just financial settlements or some vague and amorphous sense of “closure,” but outright fucking justice, and the perpetrators and their enablers deserve to be dealt with not just by their fictitious God, but by real, human courts of law and penal systems. The work that the Boston Globe did to report on this epic tragedy in important. The work that Tom McCarthy and his cast and crew did it translating that story into film is important. But — and it’s a big but — that nagging thought I had as the credits rolled on Spotlight, and that I’ve had ever since, is (insert sarcastic drumroll if you must) : “this felt like a made-for-TV ‘Movie of the Week’ with an overqualified cast.”
I wisely ditched out on the Catholic church (and all religion) in my mind and heart when I was about six years old and physically as soon as I flew my parents’ coop, but some remnant of good, old-fashioned “Catholic Guilt” must still be lingering in the dark corners of my subconscious because I feel like I should burn in a Hell that I don’t even believe exists just for thinking that. But my conscience would bother me even more if I expressed anything other than my absolute, honest assessment of this — or, heck, any — film to my readers, so there you have it.