'Spotlight' Casts Its Gaze on Scandals Exposed and Stories Untold

In pursuing the story of abuse in the Catholic Church, Spotlight is much like other films that celebrate journalists and the 14th Amendment.


Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Rated: R
Studio: Open Road Films
Year: 2015
US date: 2016-01-29 (General release)

"Can you tell me exactly what happened?" asks Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). "Language is so important here." Sacha's a reporter for the Boston Globe, and so you might guess, especially invested in language. But her question here has another context. Talking to Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton), a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, she's concerned. Saying he was "molested," she tells him, "isn't enough."

This idea of "enough" forms the thematic spine of the movie Spotlight. It's an idea that becomes increasingly complicated, in the many relationships forged here, between sources and reporters, reporters and editors, attorneys and political figures, victims and criminals. At the rawest and most explicit level, there can never be "enough" regret or repayment, no way to make up to the thousands of children whose lives have been defined by the trauma they've endured. "Enough" refers as well to effects of the scandal for communities and institutions, the loss of time, trust, and hope.

Spotlight can't possibly resolve or even pose all of these questions. The history and legacy of sexual abuses in the Catholic Church, in Boston and around the world, are comprised of myriad, diverse stories. So the film does something else, focusing on the details of just a few of these stories, filtered through the experiences of the team of reporters who pursued and broke the Globe's story. Beginning in the summer of 2001, a team called Spotlight and led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), pursued the story and exposed it.

This filter of their experience creates yet another story, namely, the reporters' own stakes, their professional obligations, their efforts to get past institutional and corporate obstacles, and also, for some of them at least, their sense of guilt over what wasn't done sooner, when it might have been.

This last part is key to the film's revisiting of the case. While the horror of the crimes by the priests and the Church is plain enough, the abuse and the cover-up, the decades of reshuffling priests' assignments so they might commit crimes in so many places, and the complete cruelty of officials who sought to protect themselves and their institutions before they looked out for their flocks, who sought cover when they should have been transparent. In pursuing this story, Spotlight is much like other films that celebrate journalists and the 14th Amendment.

Certainly, the journalists in Spotlight are grand, including the bold new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who determines to pursue the case almost as soon as he takes up his new job at the Globe, and the dedicated Spotlight team's members, from Sacha to Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). Repeatedly, these hard workers appear at their desks, making calls or searching through files, or head out to people's offices and homes, where doors are closed or opened, where stories become more complicated and less easy to tell. In revealing mini-scenes, the film focuses on visual details -- sandwiches uneaten and dishes unwashed, arms with needle marks and kids with coloring books -- that don't so much move plot as characterize the many types of loss people suffer, the ways they endure.

Such observations help to make sense of the broader story, constructing trajectories and sympathies, allowing you somewhat familiar ways in, intrepid investigators and angry survivors. To that end, Spotlight also indicates what's inevitably wrong with the usual valiant journalists narrative, allowing that reporters sometimes miss stories or become so wrapped in doing their jobs, meeting deadlines and picking stories, that they don't quite do their jobs, as noble as their intentions might be.

In this context of the broader story, visual details underscore and sometimes complicate the heroics. A couple of reporters' righteous upsets are too obvious in their contorted faces and big speeches, and Marty Baron is pretty much only great, rendered here as "the best news editor of all time".

He stakes out his moral ground when he's summoned to the office of Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), now retired securely in Palazzo della Cancelleria, even though he oversaw decades of scandal. As Marty sits across from Cardinal Law, the camera keeps low on both men, confrontational and cagey. The film goes right at Law, by way of the newspaperman: advised that "great institutions" are best served when they work together, Marty doesn't miss a beat as he rejects the premise, suggesting instead that institutions are better served when a newspaper stands alone. Cut to Law, affronted.

The movie doesn't stop there. If Law exemplifies a most self-aware villain, along with the lawyers who defended the Church for money (the most sinister one here is played by Billy Crudup), other monsters emerge in me n who appear not to comprehend what they've done, many of whom are also abuse survivors. Sacha approaches one of these, at his front door, and for a moment, before he's hustled away by his protective sister, he blurts out what he's done and how he lives with it.

Standing close to Sacha, he insists, "I never gratified myself. I never felt any pleasure from it. That's important to understand." Her face mirrors yours in this moment, uncomprehending, horrified, undone.

Spotlight can't tell this man's story, can't understand it. Still, it represents that gap, not to explain or tell "exactly what happened", but instead to leave open the questions. Knowing that it can't spell out how this man has come to convince himself of this truth, how he's been protected, over time and still now, so that he can believe it, the movie makes clear that more work must be done, that the story goes on.





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