Director: Tom McCarthy
Writer: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Lieve Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Michael Keaton
On January 6 2002, The Boston Globe published a newspaper article detailing how the Catholic Church in Boston had been complicit in the cover up of sex crimes committed by paedophile priests.
During their initial investigation, reporter Mike Rezendes believed there were 87 paedophile priests in Boston. After the publication of their investigation prompted more victims to break their silence and come forward, as many as 247 priests have since been implicated. By the end of 2002, Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston, resigned in disgrace. The film’s closing credits reveal that Pope John Paul II re-assigned him to a high ranking position in Rome.
Spotlight is the film about the journalists who broke the story and the year long work they put into building a case against the church. It is a quietly understated film that deals with horrific subject matter in a careful and considered fashion and is surprisingly self reflective when asking questions about how such widespread abuse happened to so many children for such a long period of time. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian has one of the pointed and memorable lines of the film when he sadly observes that “It takes a village to raise [a child]. It takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.” The Catholic church may have systemically covered up the actions of their priests but that system involves law enforcement, schools, the media and the community, who all chose to look the other way.
The team who broke the story are known as Spotlight, a subset of journalists who work at The Boston Globe and are one of the oldest investigative journalism teams in America.
At the start of the film, a new editor Marty Baron joins the newspaper. Unmarried, Jewish and raised in Florida, Baron is a rank outsider. The film briefly teases him as an antagonist for the Spotlight team. When editor Walter “Robby” Robinson meets Baron for the first time, Baron explains that there may be staffing cuts on the horizon and asks about the function of the Spotlight team. Robinson explains that they write longform investigative articles and that these stories sometimes takes months to come to fruition.
The film then subverts our expectations. Instead of acting as a bureaucratic bean counter who threatens the axe, Baron identifies that the Spotlight team would be perfectly placed to pursue a news story about a paedophile priest that gained little traction and hadn’t been investigated further by the newspaper. “This strikes me as an essential story for a local paper.“
The Spotlight team are comprised of five members – senior editor Walter Robinson (Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Matt Carroll (d’Arcy James). They work in a dingy office unit that seems like a modified basement. Firmly dating the film at the turn of the century is the reams of books, binders and papers overflowing across their desks.
The film never really has the time to significantly delve into the lives of each journalist but we can tell that they are heavily defined by their professions. Rezendes has a neglected partner who never appears on screen. Pfeiffer describes herself as a lapsed Catholic who still infrequently attends Sunday Mass as a means of bonding with her grandmother. Robinson is an established member of Boston high society and as the investigation unfolds and increases in scale, he begins to understand that it may cost him almost all of those connections that he has established over decades of work. Each member of the Spotlight team is seen to be a valuable contributor and critical to the success of the investigation.
Although the church cover up sits squarely as the focus of the film, there are many interesting observations and thematic undercurrents about technology and the role of journalism that can be observed in Spotlight. I defy anyone to watch this film and not come away inspired by the Spotlight team and the pride they take in providing an important service to the community. But even in 2001, the signs are there that traditional news organizations are about to face new challenges in the 21st Century and that this type of time consuming year long investigative work is a luxury that fewer and fewer media organizations can afford to have. Although the Spotlight team are generally united in their efforts, a key point of debate develops late in the film. Baron is adamant that they don’t break the story until they have collected enough evidence to prove that the cover up by the church was not for a single priest but a systemic program that ran ‘straight to the top’. This doesn’t sit well with Rezendes who reaches a point where he feels he has enough to implicate Cardinal Law. In the most impassioned scene of the film, he argues that any delays publishing the story will risk harm to other children.
What a scene it is. Rezendes’ moment of anger is a cathartic release for both he and the audience. Until that moment, Rezendes and Pfeiffer have patiently, diligently and impassively worked the case – following leads, interviewing victims, insisting on details and no euphemisms. The lack of grandstanding by Tom McCarthy and the actors in this film is to be applauded. The interviews with the victims are detailed but not exploitative. We don’t see a shot of a child in the film until over an hour in. McCarthy trusts that the audience understands the stakes and thanks to some wonderful work from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, the film is able to convey its message through showing and not telling. Technology creep, the omnipresent church steeples, the exchanged glances between the Spotlight team, all communicate the story without a need for more words.
Its only natural that a film about this subject should linger on guilt and forgiveness. It is Robinson in particular who has the heaviest conscience. As the senior editor he is invited to high society galas and when he speaks with important figures in the community who knew about what was happening, he is confronted with bold indifference. ‘A few bad eggs’, ‘think about the good work that the Cardinal has done’. The head of an academic council tells Robinson point blank that Marty Baron couldn’t possibly have the best interests of Bostonians at heart because he’s an outsider. Of all these people, it is Robinson himself who he reserves the harshest judgment for. As Rezendes and Pfeiffer build a case thanks to the help of victims, attorneys and specialists, Robinson is faced with a horrible revelation: the information was passed onto him nearly five years earlier but he didn’t pursue the leads as vigorously as he could have.
How do you begin to process or deal with that guilt? As with everything else in the film, Spotlight doesn’t spell out the answer for you, it shows you. The final shot of the film, right down to the final words, sums up what Robinson must do next.