Directed by Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James
Rated R for some language, including sexual references
2 hr. 8 min.
This film is beautifully done and yet painful to watch. Told in a simple, elegant style, it reveals its story in layers, the same way a journalist works to uncover bit by bit the story behind the story, and as these layers unfold, without resorting to graphic gimmickry (no titillating shots of priests playing with children), it becomes more horrifying and unbelievable.
In 2001, The Boston Globe had a team of investigative journalists who worked to uncover corruption and scandal in their city. That team was called Spotlight. Reporters who played a vital role in writing these stories included Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).
That summer, a column published by The Globe revealed that some lawsuits had been filed in Boston pertaining to charges of sexual abuse among Catholic priests. The new editor of the Globe, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), as well as team leader Robinson hotly debated among themselves the wisdom of taking on the Catholic Church. In the end, they reluctantly decided to seek a court order to have those documents unsealed.
Eventually, the actions against the Church, as well as some hardcore probing by the Spotlight team, revealed a number of local priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct with children. In all these cases, the Church had gone to great lengths to hide the evidence and keep the victims quiet.
Even more shocking, as the team continued to pursue its investigation, more names of abusive priests kept popping up on its lists. It turns out that even with the information revealed in the court documents, Spotlight had only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.
Director McCarthy has made an impressive effort to present his story in a manner spare on histrionics, yet deep with emotion. Rather than turning this into a thriller and amping up the adrenaline, he has chosen to peel the story back like an onion and let the doldrums of everyday life seep into the film’s architecture.
McCarthy’s approach illustrates why it took so long for anyone (including The Boston Globe) to learn about the Church’s massive cover-up of clergy misconduct. People were locked into their daily lives and not always willing or able to see the big picture. The Church represented not only goodness but power. Who wanted to challenge this pillar of faith in its own community?
But McCarthy and cast also adroitly reveal how bits of information floating unnoticed suddenly fall together. A column here. A victim there. Small news stories from the past. A picture forms.
The characters from Spotlight risk their own emotional vulnerability. Keaton in particular comes to realize how badly he missed the clues and how painful it was to back up and assume responsibility for his oversight.
The journalist in director Tom McCarthy shows how those involved in writing this Pulitzer winner came to accept the truth. And yet, there’s more.
The viewer is also a part of this process. Just like members of Spotlight, you must wrestle with the fact that Catholic priests were allowed for decades by their archbishop Cardinal, Bernard Law, to get away with pedophilia, and you will learn at the end of the film just how bad the problem had become, not only in Boston, but around the world.
Spotlight starts slowly and ticks like a clock, taking its time to uncover the darkness of the human soul, even if that soul wears a collar and reads from the Bible. The film not only asks the dreaded question, “How could this happen?” but also answers that question: Because no one really wanted to believe the victims. Spotlight shows how vigilance and faith must be partners. For McCarthy, one must always ask questions fearlessly, even when sacred faith tries to avoid the white-hot light of examination.