SPOTLIGHT does more than dissect the passions at work in the investigative news process. As riveting as the specifics are of how The Boston Globe’s special investigative team chased down the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it’s the larger question, that of how wide-spread sexual abuse of children by priests could have flourished for decades on end, that should bring us all up short. This is where Tom McCarthy’s film goes from good to great. It takes the story and rather than merely recounting the painstaking detective work, the synchronistic flashes of insight, and the personalities involved, it examines a system more concerned with institutions than people, powered by people convinced that the obfuscation and cover-ups were for the greater good. It also, and this is far from an ancillary aspect, considers the role of the free local press in society, and the grim implications of it disappearing into a landscape of blogs, aggregate news sites, and journalism as a game of profit and loss rather than civic duty and a public trust.
Told with a spare style that eschews melodrama in favor of real emotions, it begins with The Globe welcoming its new Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) taking over. He’s an outsider, brought in from Miami by the corporation that bought The Globe. He’s not a hometown kid, which is a strike against him. He’s also, as several people observe, Jewish at a paper where the majority of the staff are Catholic, lapsed or otherwise. Baron is taken by a column in the paper that hasn’t registered with the rest of the senior staff; a column about a priests molesting children. Low-key, but forceful, he convinces Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) ,the editor of the Spotlight team (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) that can take a year to break a story, to drop what it’s doing and follow-up on this new issue. Robinson acquiesces, but the other members of his team are more enthusiastic, particularly Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), who senses a great story, and one that needs to be told, and whose work ethic when on the trail of a story may have cost him his marriage.
The hard work of digging up a story that has been skillfully buried for decades is followed with loving detail, and the crisp idiom of a suspense thriller. In this age before instant internet access to information, there are volumes of Church records are perused, court documents are mysteriously missing, and pressure from associates includes both veiled threats and the sin of omission. McCarthy unfolds each painstaking step, but he never for a moment lets us forget the reason breaking the story with tangible proof and reliable sources is important. The victims, some adults who have lived with what happened to them for decades, are treated with sensitivity, compassion, and complete honesty. As one of the reporters interviewing one of them put it, we need the details to make the case. The survivors break down, but they are also allowed to be angry, not just with the priests who robbed them of their innocence, but also with a society, including their own parents, who did nothing in order not to cast aspersions on the Church.
The power of the Church is summed up in Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the head of the Church in Boston, who condescends to Baron during their get-acquainted meeting, issuing elegantly worded threats, barely containing his contempt, and gifting the editor with a manual of Catholic catechism. The turning point is also summed up in that meeting, when Baron, never evincing a moment of discomfort or submission, contradicts the Cardinal in a very direct fashion. The look on Law’s face, the stunned disbelief and the quick, but not quite complete recovery of his composure speaks volumes.
The anger is the thread that runs through the film, its beating heart. From the survivor who has spent years trying to get the paper’s attention, to the lawyer, played with a wicked sense of both irony and humanity by Stanley Tucci, who has no time for reporters who don’t have the guts to take on the Church, to the reporters themselves, who struggle with what to do with their faith now that its institution has betrayed them.
What is best about SPOTLIGHT, though, is that is doesn’t gloat. It gives us the satisfaction of seeing criminals prosecuted, and even more in a group of professionals who risked the paper they loved in order to break a story that could potentially lose them its readership, but there is also a bittersweet taste to the responsibility of disillusioning those who took comfort in religion that bespeaks the basic decency of those reporters. This wasn’t for the glory. This wasn’t for the fame. This was for the simple belief that telling the truth will do the most good for the most people.