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Spotlight | Movie Review

Journalists – particularly those covering highly sensitive events – are often the targets of well-deserved critique (consider, for instance, the grotesque spectacle of the past week that witnessed live news crews rooting through the apartment of deceased mass shooters). Yet often it is journalists who do the legwork required to properly expose hidden evil to public scrutiny, igniting the sparks of major change. “Spotlight” is the story of one such exposure: namely, the revelation that the Catholic Church had systematically ignored complaints of sexual abuse by Massachusetts priests.

Following the grim revelation that one priest molested dozens of children after being shuffled from parish to parish, the investigative staff of the Boston Globe (played by an ensemble cast including Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, John Slattery, and Liev Schreiber) go to work – ultimately uncovering a pattern of cover-ups reaching to the very highest levels of the diocese. It’s a meticulous investigation for which the staff received a Pulitzer Prize, and one that severely shook the institutional Catholic Church.

“Spotlight” does full justice to its gripping subject matter. A slow, somewhat unfocused start gives way to an utterly riveting second half, building to a peak of intensity far more engrossing than most top-dollar blockbusters. And make no mistake: this film is searing in all the ways it must necessarily be. “Spotlight” pummels the viewer with unwhitewashed depictions of abuse victims’ anguish, systemic corruption, and the wrenching consequences of such an exposé on individuals’ faith in religious institutions. It’s never graphic, but still devastates.

“Spotlight” is not perfect; most notably, it lacks some of the thematic nuance its story demands. Significant “gray” moral issues – like the ever-present temptation to sensationalize human pain through journalism, as well as the rationale for the Catholic Church’s celibacy requirement for priests – are handwaved away. And though, to its credit, “Spotlight” stresses the hard work of vetting sources and obtaining corroboration of facts (unlike the recent “Truth”), it seems to adopt a casual disdain for legal ethics: those who properly refuse to compromise their ethical duties to maintain client confidentiality are tarred as “shills” and co-conspirators in the grand scheme of abuse.

That being said, the story of conflicting lawyerly duties is not the story being told here. This is, first and foremost, a drama about how to do journalism in a way that serves the public good. In that light, “Spotlight” is at once both an inspiring and emotionally harrowing experience, one that never strays into the bombastic or gratuitous. Highly recommended (and undoubtedly a serious Oscar contender).

VERDICT: 9/10. A riveting, large-scale drama that manages to be more than merely aesthetic: it is important.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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