Posted on November 12, 2015 at 5:30 pm
“Spotlight” is about the ultimate betrayal of trust from an institution that literally represented the Word of God to many people. And it is about whether we will continue to have institutions that serve the essential function of monitoring the gap between aspiration and actuality, between what people say they are and do and the reality.
Spotlight is the name for the investigative group of journalists working for the Boston Globe. While their colleagues reported on stories that could be reported and written in days, the Spotlight group had the luxury and the responsibility of taking as much as a year to do the kind of in-depth original research necessary for more complex and difficult subjects.
The staff at Spotlight was let by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and included Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).
Like most of the members of the Globe staff they were Boston born and bred, Red Sox fans to the end, and raised Catholic. They had just finished work on a long-term piece when their new editor arrived. He was not Boston born and bred, not a Sox fan, and not Catholic. And perhaps most important, he was not a Boston Globe lifer. He was Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), most recently from Miami. He was an outsider in every way and they correctly suspected that the Globe was just a stop on his career trajectory. (He is now at the Washington Post.) They were not inclined to follow his idea of what stories they should cover.
But when he asked them about following up on a story about a priest who abused young boys, they could not come up with a reason not to other than it was too awful to imagine that it might be true. They begin to investigate. It turns out it was not one priest. It is a city-wide problem. A priest abuses children, is put on “medical leave” and transferred. The families of the boys are paid off and silenced. Then it happens again.
Director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”), writing with Josh Singer, really captures the culture of a newsroom, the stale coffee, the stale-er jokes, but the passionate curiosity that drives them all. This film will be compared to “All the President’s Men” because they are both true stories about young reporters getting huge stories everyone else missed. But the more important comparison is the way both movies capture the numbing work that goes into reporting. The doors knocked on. The doors slammed. And in this case, the nine years worth of diocese phone directories gone over, line by line (this was one of the last of the eras of off-line, analog document searches) to follow the “medical leave” priests took weeks of meticulous checking. It shows us reporting on the cusp of monumental technological change as well, when the paper makes the then-innovative decision to make the underlying documents available to readers online.
The reporters face enormous obstacles, starting with overcoming their own assumptions and then the powerful people who try to stop them. The church is an overwhelming force, politically and culturally. Do readers really want to know? Will the paper lose subscribers and advertisers?
There is no betrayal more devastating than to have the most trusted of institutions, the one most intimately involved in family joys and sorrows to be countenancing the abuse of those most deserving of its protection. But by the end of the film, that atrocity, already known to us, is not as troubling as the idea that news organizations may not be able to bring us the next one.
Parents should know that the theme of the movie is the investigation of widespread child sexual abuse and its cover-up, with sexual references, some graphic, and some strong language.
Family discussion: How did the arrival of an outsider affect the decision to do this story? Do today’s newspapers have the resources and support they need to do in-depth investigations like this one?
If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and “Truth” and the documentaries “Deliver Us from Evil” and “Twist of Faith”