Image source. Copyright Open Road Films, 2015.
The thing that strikes you the most about Spotlight has nothing to do with the movie itself. Leave aside the superb acting, the well-paced editing, the sharp dialogue, the skillful build-up of tension, the refusal to cheaply lionize the work of these journalists: what really makes this movie resonate is the horrific story it portrays. Few people by now haven’t heard about the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal, but the sheer enormity of it frequently gets downplayed or ignored. Spotlight does the rare job of being both an excellent piece of art and a relevant take on current events. It’s a sharp wake-up call that, for so many victims, justice still remains a far-off illusion.
Many critics who’ve showered praise on Spotlight have compared it favorably to All the President’s Men, the 1976 film that starred Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in their attempts to take down President Nixon over Watergate. The praise isn’t undeserved: in many ways, the premise of Spotlight certainly resembles that of Alan Pakula’s thriller. We’re whooshed into the offices of The Boston Globe at the turn of the 21st century, when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a former editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald, has just taken the helm of a newspaper struggling to deal with the advent of the Internet revolution. Reporters are leaving for larger journals; staff are being laid off; and the Globe‘s cadre of investigative reporters, the so-called “Spotlight” team of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Briand d’Arcy James), worry more about their next paycheck than their next project. When Baron suggests pursuing a lead on the trial of John Geoghan, a Catholic priest accused of molesting children, they’re only too happy to start investigating.
But that trail about one awry priest ends up leading to something far more unsettling. Geoghan’s actions, hardly anomalous, turn out to be just one example of a chilling, system-wide pattern of privilege and exploitation. We follow these reporters step by step as they painstakingly uncover the layers of abuse and denial practiced by the Church over the decades, the drastic, even illegal lengths to which the archdiocese went to cover up and exculpate all the accused. The team manages to dig up all the dirty inner workings of the affair, but only after relentless persistence and plenty of wrangling. Their initial frustration with uncooperative lawyers and recalcitrant victims becomes our frustration; their eventual astonishment and shock mirror our own. It’s two hours of concealed leads, veiled threats, and implicit responses that underscore the solemnity and riskiness of their work. Without being overly melodramatic, the editor and screenwriter make sure we feel the significance, however small, of tasks even as tedious as examining 40-year-old books in the basement of the public archives. Taking on the Catholic Church has rarely felt so immediate and exciting.
And yet, if it were just immediate and exciting, Spotlight would be little more than a pale imitator of All the President’s Men. Instead, director Tom McCarthy adds several shades of grey to the story’s initial black-and-white premise. One of the movie’s biggest themes concerns the complicity of the powerful, the fact that very few people or organizations with influence – including, as we learn, The Boston Globe itself – chose to question the Church’s handling of accusations of abuse, even if the signs all pointed to a cover-up. In one scene, for example, Archbishop Bernard Law (Len Cariou) openly tries to dissuade Baron off the Church’s trail, saying that “institutions of power should work together.” One of the lawyers Robby and Sacha relentlessly tail for evidence bitterly complains that he already tried tipping the Globe about the cover-up years before, only to be rejected. And on the day when all their hard work is finally about to go to press, Robby sobers the mood when he mentions he received information about the scandal 10 years ago, but never bothered to investigate further. There’s not much reason to feel proud of your success when it’s success that could’ve, would’ve and should’ve happened years ago.
And while All the President’s Men mostly concerns the search for impersonal truth, Spotlight is all about personal stories – personal stories of lives shortened, lives tarnished, lives wrecked. Just hearing what happened to some of the victims alone would be enough to shock the conscience. A fatherly figure becomes a threatening menace; the children, unsure of what the priest’s advances mean, say nothing; the abuse eventually leaves lifelong scars. But the actors who play these victims fill their roles with such emotion that you feel certain you’re watching the actual victims talk on screen. It’s not just their raw anger that moves; it’s the knowledge that these people put so much trust into their relations with these men, only to have it all broken. As one of them puts it so perfectly, “How can you say no to God?”
The Spotlight reporters have never directly experienced such abuse, but the investigation hits home for them too. After all, the archdiocese has always been a big player in city life. Robby went to a Catholic boarding school, where the hockey coach turned out to be a molester. Matt lives down the street from one of the accused priests. Mike regularly went to church as a child, and Sacha still goes with her grandmother at least once a week. For all of them, this investigation abruptly tears down all the faith and hope they’ve put into the Church over the years. In some cases, they come to realize how lucky they were; Robby notes that if he had played hockey instead of football, he probably would’ve been molested. In other cases, it leaves them empty; one of the movie’s most moving scenes comes when Mike unloads over a drink at Sacha’s house, acridly noting how the scandal has made him lose faith in an institution he always hoped he’d be able to return to. In a movie with such on-point dialogue, in fact, the best scenes for feeling the investigation’s toll use no words at all. We only need look at Mike’s expression while he watches a “Silent Night” Christmas pageant to understand the complex mix of hatred, sadness, and betrayal coursing through his head. Double thumbs-up to all four actors, particularly Ruffalo, for brilliantly bringing the far-ranging, surprisingly intimate consequences of this work to light.
Everything about Spotlight is a job well done. The acting, the screenplay, the editing, the story – there’s nothing here you can pick at and call unfinished. Moreover, its release also serves as a timely, telling reminder of two equally important facts: the value of print journalism that looks beyond superficial, immediate conclusions in favor of thoughtful, comprehensive analysis; and the still-incomplete struggle for victims of sex abuse to have their voices fully recognized. Indeed, McCarthy chooses to end the film not by highlighting the team’s eventual success – the resignation of Boston’s archbishop, the Pulitzer Prize – but rather the first moments after the article goes to press, when the team begins to receive thousands of calls from other victims willing to have their stories told. For these reporters, all those weeks of arduous research were truly only the beginning. So it is for us too, even 15 years later. Spotlight has a crucial, masterfully-crafted message for bystanders, victims, and Church authorities alike. We ignore it to our peril.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Briand d’Arcy James, John Slattery
Running Time: 128 minutes
Produced by: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar, Nicole Rocklin, Blye Faust
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Written by: Thomas McCarthy, Josh Singer