Tipped by many to take this year’s Best Picture Oscar, Spotlight is the story of how The Boston Globe’s team of investigative journalists revealed the level of child abuse within the Catholic Church.
Related: Read David Gritten's review of Spotlight
In January 2002, after months of research and ever more shocking discoveries, The Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team broke the news about institutionalised child abuse in the Catholic Church. The story of this story may seem an unlikely subject for a Hollywood movie – “we never thought that people would find it interesting to know how we did it,” says the real Walter “Robby” Robinson – but “Spotlight”, the resulting film from director Tom McCarthy, is one of the year’s best.
Playing Robby is Michael Keaton, who, despite fighting off a cold, is in London to publicise the film.
“I’m blessed that I get to do what I do for a living,” explains the actor. “Then you get to work with these kinds of people, the actors, and these journalists, that’s another bonus. And I know it sounds odd to say, but I’m blessed and fortunate to be able to tell a story like this. You get to say something that might change someone’s life. It was a very satisfying experience.”
There’s also, as Michael’s occasional hesitation and careful selection of words suggests, a delicate path to be negotiated while publicising a film of this nature.
“[There’s a danger] of being what people used to call ‘highfalutin’,” he acknowledges, “Like speaking from on high, ‘aren’t we fabulous people?’ [for doing this] but the fabulous people were the people from The Boston Globe, the fabulous people are the people who do things out in the real world. I’m an actor… [but] if we can do a tiny little bit to help, that’s pretty great.”
The story is quite astonishing, with the initial relatively isolated allegations about one or two priests rapidly snowballing to five, ten, twenty and so many more cases. While Michael regularly acknowledges the importance of the revelations through the interview, he acknowledges that much of his decision rested on the script and the chance to work with Tom, the man behind films such as The Visitor and The Station Agent.
“I’d seen every one of Tom’s movies and the script was good, so I’m over half way in at that point anyway,” admits Michael, “but this means something…
“As an actor – which is generally really boring talk – we’re like journalists: you have to be curious, that’s the starting point. If you’re a decent actor, you’re really in the moment but… that scene around the table [when the full number of priests is revealed]…” Michael shakes his head. “It hits you. Doing these interviews, it hits me again and again. We’d talked while we made it, we rehearsed, we did scenes over and over, we talked about our personal experiences of the Catholic Church, we’d shoot the scene, take six, take eight, we’d rehearse, etc. Even though you know the story, it hits you.”
It’s not the only scene that leaves Michael reeling, recalling a scene where, after the story has been published, the devout Catholic grandmother of Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) reads the revelations and quietly asks her granddaughter for a glass of water. “When you’re taking someone’s faith away, that’s a whole other level,” admits Michael. “My mother was about as devout a Catholic as you can be, she’d go to Mass every day, so to crush someone’s faith, that’s big.”
Although Michael’s own relationship with the Church is somewhat more fractured – “I’ve not been a good Catholic since I was a boy” – he’s keen to make a distinction between the actions of the few and the more beneficial effects of religion. “As much as I hate what’s happened in the world, I’m a defender of faith. I think it’s good for people, I’m envious of it…
“I’m not trying to beat up the Catholic Church. I still drop in, light a candle for my mom… but that’s as far as it goes for me. But – to me anyway – [this film is] not about religion, it’s about people taking power and using it to take advantage of the disenfranchised and the powerless. [That] happens to women all over the world, it happens every second in the Middle East, it happens to people everywhere. That’s the bigger picture.”
Spotlight is on general release from Friday 29th January 2016