I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.
The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.
Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.
This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’
In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.
I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.
I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?
On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all. Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.
Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.
The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.
I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.
As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.
Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.
British Columbia, especially Greater Vancouver, is known for people using radical and even destructive methods to make their statement heard on an issue. One such person who’s lesser known in Grant Hadwin who cut down a beloved tree on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1997. The documentary Hadwin’s Judgement traces Hadwin’s path from logger to radical to his mysterious disappearance.
The film is almost like a biography of Grant Hadwin and the moments in his life that changed him forever. Grant Hadwin was born in West Vancouver. He came from a logging family and eventually found himself working on the Queen Charlotte Islands. However he soon developed an anger when he saw how much forest was being cut down from the island and how fast with the modern cutting methods. He writes letters of complaints to businesses. He even tries to start his own business which makes products out of decayed wood or wood long cut down but it doesn’t succeed.
The deforestation of the area along with his mental instability takes his toll on him and he cuts down the sacred tree of the island– the 1000 year-old Kiidk’yaas (The Golden Spruce)— to send his message. He awaited trial with many a person angry at him. However Grant pursues a kayaking trip up the Boeing Strait. He is never seen again although his broken kayak, letter in lamination and tools have been found intact. He has still never been found dead or alive.
The film is mostly a documentary featuring people who mostly knew Grant during his lifetime. It features co-workers to friends to a local photographer who photographed him swimming just before his disappearance to John Vaillant who wrote an award-winning book on him. It also interviews people of the Haida Gwaii who knew the tree. The Haida Gwaii consider trees to be sacred so it’s no wonder the chopping of that tree would hurt them deeply.
However the film doesn’t just present people interviewed. It also provides people first-hand knowledge of the Haida Gwaii people, their legends and their beliefs. It provides insight to Grant’s feelings around the time and includes narration of the letters he wrote in his protests. It even includes moments in Grant’s life re-enacted by actor Doug Chapman playing Grant. Doug never utters a word of dialogue in his acting but it’s like you’re reading Grant’s mind just with the looks on his face. You could see why Grant would lose his patience with what was happening and do what he did. It still remains a question. Was it Grant’s attitude to the deforestation of the area? Or was it a mental imbalance? Or both? Even I myself wondered if he valued trees so much why would he cut the sacred Golden Spruce down? I later assumed Grant did it possibly to say to all those logging companies: “You want wood so bad? Here’s your wood, bastards!” That’s my belief to why he did it. People snap.
Despite the storytelling, narration and re-enacting of Grant’s moments, the best attribute of the documentary has to be the cinematography. Right from the start, you see images of the rain forest, an aerial view of Queen Charlotte Island and a panoramic shot of the forest. Already images of beauty that tell what this island is all about and why the island’s natural features are important. It’s not just beautiful images like those that make the film but the uglier images too. The film includes footage of the tree cutting mechanisms through all angles. You can see just how they can cut down a whole tree in seconds. You can see why through such mechanisms looms the threat of deforestation. So much cutting in so little time. The film also shows the ugly aftermaths of all the trees cut down. There’s one panoramic view that not only shows a wide forest but of a cut-down area. That’s one of the many eyesores. Other eyesores include closer shots of land that used to be forests, images of piles of dry dead wood and the biggest of all: the Golden Spruce down on the ground with its leaves soaking in the river. Even single images like that of a freighter full of logs tells the story of the land and why Grant Hadwin was compelled to make such a judgement. Shots that included Grant also provided for the storytelling including the site of his broken kayak.
Sasha Snow did a great job in creating a documentary that gives people’s opinions of Grant through all angles and even re-enacts some of his key moments. Sasha not only includes those that know him but the local Haida Gwaii and author Vaillant. Sasha made a lot of smart choices in telling the story such as having an actor act out Grant’s moments instead of showing photographs. In fact we only see one photograph of Grant in the film right at the very end.
Hadwin’s Judgement is more than a documentary. It takes you inside the person, the land, the people of the land and the economic pressures of the times. I don’t know if the film completely supports Hadwin’s decision but it provides the reasons why he did it.