Spotlight, which is already getting a heavy Oscar shine in November, concerns The Boston Globe’s year-long dig into 100s of child sex abuse cases that were knowingly swept under the rug by the Cardinal of Boston’s Catholic churches. Faith and sex abuse? Yeeeesh. If you’re wondering why should you plunk down money to watch such an expose the easiest answer is “because they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” And because Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo give great performances that both perfectly fit the film and giddily tap into the attributes of their famous superhero personas (Keaton/Batman has access to the power elite, and Ruffalo/Hulk gets mad, throws things, and calms down by sleeping it off on courthouse benches).
The bigger answer of why Spotlight is a wholly engaging and necessary watch, however, is because journalism like this doesn’t exist anymore. Not just in the amount of time the team is given to investigate before they have to submit the big splashy expose (before publishing, the reporters need to try and get info that leads all the way to the top of the Catholic system in New England—that way it’s less likely to be swept aside or buried again). But also because this local story did something that good journalism is supposed to do: not just inform, but also give a voice to its readers to come forward and help author local change.
Quick comparisons between Spotlight and All the President’s Men (1976; Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Woodward and Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal) have already been made. It is an apt comparison, because both films are taut, tightly edited, and magnificently acted portrayals of journalists working overtime to get the truth to the American public. Additionally, both true life stories led to major shakedowns of two of the most powerful institutions in the world: The White House and the Catholic Church. But there is a distinct difference between the two films, and it’s not just because Spotlight lacks a Deep Throat smoking gun source. It’s because, even though we know that abusive priests are not just a local issue, it’s presented as a local epidemic. As splashy as that comparison will be for posters, Spotlight is its own beacon of truth.
In Spotlight, Keaton leads the team of investigative reporters who’ve been given the department moniker “Spotlight” for The Boston Globe; they’re supposed to shine a light on large scale pieces that the metro section misses. Set in 2001, he’s been at the paper nearly a decade. But he has deep roots in the city, having gone to the private school across the street from the paper, an institute from which he still holds powerful suburban buddies. Ruffalo is the hotshot reporter who goes deepest into the data of sex abuse studies on priests. Rachel McAdams conducts most of the interviews with the victims and a shady lawyer (Billy Crudup) who’s privately settled numerous transgressions outside of a courtroom. The final Spotlight member, played by Brian d’Arcy James, lives in the basement of files, digging up as much pattern information as he can get from old clippings and church directories. We don’t get to know the characters intimately, but we intimately watch them work, interview subjects, work their relationships with lawyers, and share pints and golf courses with Catholic donors. And seeing Ruffalo’s sparse apartment (to which an editor quips, “when are you going to move in?”), we understand that to watch them work and connect with their sources is to know them.
Though not in the forefront of the narrative, Spotlight is a reminder of our increasing divide from local news—even though making civic change locally is generally more successful. We’re consuming more news than ever before, but the percent of people who get their news from a local source (TV/internet included) is dropping immensely in cities where big papers used to thrive; also on a sharp decline is the percent of people who’ve ever been interviewed by a local reporter, and obviously, employment at local papers has dropped immensely, while wire services for national news has increased. In an attempt to be as fast as worldwide news, even most local beats that do exist do not have the luxury of pounding the pavement for better sources, and must pound keys on a keyboard—and find links, baby, links!
We know going into Spotlight that this team published a groundbreaking report, so the suspense isn’t whether it will be published, it’s how they’ll wiggle past legal roadblocks and how much can they actually get under a tight deadline. Midway through, something unique happens that juxtaposes the needs of national news and local news. The Spotlight team is pulled off of the story because 9/11 happened and everyone needs to devote all their resources to the national tragedy, but that decision leaves all of the victims and lawyers they’ve been working with twisting in the wind. This will probably be the only film that makes you lament the timing of 9/11 while not engaging with the act of destruction itself.
The priest sexual abuse scandal that is written about locally in Spotlight, helps lead a global unveiling of molestation and rape within the priesthood and the complicit awareness of many people in prominent positions within the Catholic Church. But director/co-screenwriter, Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), doesn’t expand beyond the stuffy Boston newsroom. And as such, it lands the perfect journalistic ending. We don’t see anyone receive awards. We don’t see any priests taken to the courthouse. We see the reporters answering the phones, speaking to people who can add to the information they’ve already gotten.
The story we witness, that they spent a year gathering enough evidence to be publishable, is only the beginning. Now their readership can tell them the rest.