Director Tom McCarthy with might and main brings to the big screen the astonishing true story of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Spotlight” team. This group of investigative journalists in 2002 shocked their city and the world by exposing the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of widespread pedophilia perpetrated by more than 70 local priests, and it’s still harrowing now on the screen.
“I was not prayed for, I was preyed upon” are the words revealed by one of the victims to the journalists, plunging us into the small town scandal that would later echo as a worldwide phenomenon kept in secrecy. The Globe and Spotlight’s goal has always been to expose public corruption where there were records to look at and people to interview. This specific investigation began in an unusual way with the team focused on one priest – John Geoghan – and quickly discovering that there were more holy ministers involved.
McCarthy retraces the sex-abuse investigation in a tremendously gripping way with remarkable simplicity. We instantly become part of the Spotlight team when Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is promoted and assigned by the newly appointed editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to follow up on a column about a local priest accused of having sexually abused dozens of young parishioners over the course of 30 years.
Appealing to more than critics at the Venice International Film Festival, audiences will also become enthralled in playing detective with reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). The team confers with victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) and interviews adults who were molested as children.
The major hurdles come up when the Spotlight members pursue the release of sealed court records. And taking on the Catholic Church in Boston presents several stumbling blocks all its own, whether it be the media coverage then monopolized by 9/11 or, most importantly, the Church’s systematic protection of predatory priests.
During the investigation, the Church wants to make people believe it is just “a few bad apples.” But once Pandora’s box is opened, more than 70 names spill out, and the culture of secrecy protecting the abusive priests is dismantled. Everything gets exposed, including the lawyers who sweep these atrocities under the mat, “turning child abuse into a cottage industry.” The Church had been controlling everything and also managed to have legal documents removed from court. For some lawsuits, the Church made settlements to keep the matter quiet. This was part of a cover-up that had been going on for decades: priests who abused children were assigned to other parishes where they very often did it again. For the Spotlight team, it becomes a matter of picking at the pieces of the entire system, pulling it from the top down.
Spotlight is very graceful in depicting with a matter-of-fact tone the daily commitment of the journalists in bringing to light the controversial story. The entire cast performs with introspective poise. The actors gently take a step back, interpreting their roles with coyness, almost not to obscure the pursuit of setting the record straight. The greatest protagonist is the case.
McCarthy – who was raised Catholic and “still has great understanding, admiration, and respect for the institution” – instilled a personal perspective to the story, portraying a small town community who sees in the Church a pivotal reference point. The elderly are overturned once the news is out, and along the way, we follow the shame of the victims and the reverential motivations behind their silence.
A gay victim explains that the pedophilia abuse was the first time he was accepted as a homosexual, and it was meaningful since approval came from his spiritual mentor. Nevertheless, it haunted him for the rest of his life to be introduced to sex in this way.
In general, the greatest difficulty for the victims – that prevented them from going after their abusers – was they had been “groomed” by the priests, notwithstanding whether they were boys or girls. One of the molested children, as an adult, explains how they had been robbed of their faith. Most victims did not protest in the act because they trusted their spiritual guide, after all “how do you say no to God?”
Spotlight, besides being incredibly inspirational to real-world progress, is a cinematic love letter to long-form journalism. When All The President’s Men (about Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal) came out in 1976, it earned Jason Robards an Oscar. That movie undoubtedly inspired a new generation of journalists to examine institutions once seen as off limits; just as the HBO television series The Newsroom has done in recent years. In 2015, Spotlight celebrates the virtues of investigative reporting during a period when many fear that long-form journalism has taken a backseat to 24-hour news cycles, celebrity gossip, and sensationalized Internet “click-bait.”
The movie’s ode to high-end investigative journalism serves as a shining example of what professional, top-flight members of the press can accomplish: in 2002 more than 600 articles were published about the sexual abuse of thousands of children by hundreds of priests, not just in Boston but around the country. Thanks to Spotlight, the elephant in the room left the crypt of the Church to walk out into the center of the media circus, exposed to public contempt.