Films generally rely on drama to attract the attention of viewers. And with viewers’ attention spans becoming shorter and shorter, a drama like Spotlight is a rarity.
The film tells the story of the investigation by a team at the Boston Globe newspaper, beginning in 2001, of cases of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston diocese.
That investigation took many months of sustained, difficult work. And the film is faithful in showing the careful, persistent work that journalism requires, especially in uncovering a story of such magnitude.
Marty Baron, an outsider—“an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball”—arrives from Miami as the new editor of the Globe and assigns a team of journalists to investigate allegations against John Geoghan, an unfrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys.
The paper’s “spotlight” team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States, is led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson and includes reporters Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll and Sacha Pfeiffer. They interview victims and try to unseal sensitive documents.
They run into many roadblocks. The cases brought against various priests were settled in mediation, and the information about those cases is sealed and unavailable.
The culture of Boston is infused with the sense that the Catholic Church is an important and necessary player in the city’s life. Robinson keeps hearing warnings to back off. The church does many good things; you don’t want to spoil that.
As part of their investigation, they interview some victims who are now adults. These are the most moving scenes in the film. While the abuse happened when they were young boys and they are now grown men, it’s clear their souls are broken. We get a glimpse of track marks on one man’s arm. Another man explains that he’s now sober but struggled for years with addiction.
A greater damage to these victims, however, is that the abuse helped destroy their faith in God. Even Rezendes, the reporter, who, like most of the others, grew up Catholic, says that while he hasn’t gone to church in years, he always thought he would return. Now, it’s clear, he won’t.
Pfeiffer, while going door to door, encounters the retired priest who had molested one of the men she had talked to earlier. He admits what he did, then adds, “but I never felt gratified myself,” as if that made it OK.
The film is especially good in its attention to detail. It gets so much right about journalism—how diligent reporters must be to obtain multiple sources, how they have to write everything down, how every piece of information is important.
In one scene, Rezendes is talking with a lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) about addenda to court documents. Garabedian says, “You don’t know the half of it.” Like a good reporter, Rezendes says, “Tell me the half of it.” And that leads to a key piece of evidence in breaking the story.
When they’ve turned in their initial story (they end up publishing over 600), Baron, the editor-in-chief, is copyediting the piece and says, “Too many adjectives.”
The film also shows that Robinson had a chance to break this story five years earlier but buried it and didn’t pursue the information he received.
Spotlight is an outstanding film that shows the power of the press in exposing the injustices of powers, like the Catholic Church, that try to hide their sins “for the greater good.”