Spotlight tells they story of the Boston Globe investigate journalism unit – called “Spotlight” – who investigated the long-term cover-up of child abuse by a significant number of priests within the Catholic Church in Boston beginning in 2001.
The film is based very much on the Spotlight team in the newspaper itself, and details how the arrival of a new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) kick-started an investigation into something that was bubbling under but hadn’t truly been properly investigated.
The Spotlight team – played by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James – each take on elements on the investigation, trying to get witness and survivor testimonies, unsealing sealed court documents, and trying to persuade attorneys who have some idea of the scale to let them in.
The film isn’t showy in any way. There are no grand-standing performances where characters get overly “emotional.” It’s not even that cinematic. The week before seeing Spotlight, I re-watched All The President’s Men on DVD, and that film has many more flourishes – Deep Throat disappearing into the blackness of an underground carpark; wide shots across a large open plan news floor.
If the Spotlight team’s offices were as they’re presented here, then they were buried away in the building a bit, with just an outer room for the reporters and an office for their editor.
Nonetheless, you begin to feel the heat of the conservative Catholic hierarchy in Boston, with their fingers in most of the political pies. Nobody wants to own up to the extent of the issue, and how much work the church is doing to cover it up.
It’s not a confrontational film. To a large extent the “villain” of the piece is Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston who eventually had to resign his position in covering up the sheer scale of the settlements the church had made. But we don’t meet many of the abusers themselves. One of the few we do seems to be a doddery old fool who doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that “fooling around” was in any way a bad thing. He hadn’t raped them after all! One of the reporters discovers that a building close to his family’s home is where some of these priests have been put out to water – kept out of harm’s way. He simply puts a photo of the house on his fridge door, with a warning to his kids to stay away.
This is a newspaper story, and some of the elements of urgency that we see come from the need to beat the rival paper to seeing documents that should be available to the public. In the aftermath the investigation is temporarily suspended while all hands are on deck reporting on that.
It’s a really fine film from Tom McCarthy, the actor turned director, who also co-wrote the script. Howard Shore’s score is very subtle, and sparsely used. A really good journalism film at a time when newspapers are sadly shutting up shop.