It happens as an overnight epiphany, or a slow dawning, or a reluctant acceptance. A breaking point where your actions can no longer ignore your principles. One day, the world isn’t the place you thought it was—it’s darker, bleaker, streaked with evil impulses you hadn’t suspected were possible. Sometimes, it’s just more complex.
We all have different reactions upon learning that the world doesn’t fit our expectations. Some adapt, some lash out, some try and mold the world to fit an ideal. Not to pathologize criminals, but the rapist Catholic priests at the center of the Boston Globe‘s 2001 investigation probably couldn’t reconcile their truly-held beliefs with their more basic impulses, and tried to figure their way through it by leaving a trail of shattered childhoods and lasting trauma in their wake. The reporters in Spotlight, finally seeing a grand old institution for the corrupt monster that it is, channel their newfound anger and upset into shining a light in the darkness. Telling the truth, to as many people as will listen. If they can’t make the world right, at least they can try to show the rot in its foundations.
If this makes Spotlight sound like a chest-thumping film, one where the cast sits around and opines about how journalism is so important, then I’m doing it a disservice. On the surface, where the script is, Spotlight is actually a film about work. Named for the largely-independent investigative team at the Boston Globe, it’s a film about extremely emotive subject matter turned into a job, conducted by means of halting interviews, wrangling government bureaucrats, long nights of research, and clinging onto a story even as the world conspires to take it away.
There’s nuance in Spotlight’s approach to the work, though. All the characters in the film are based on real-life counterparts, some of whom still work at the Globe, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they capture each personality accurately—but there are distinct personalities, even as everyone works to the best of their ability. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the Globe‘s editor, wants to balance good reporting with the need to stay relevant in a world increasingly turning to a computer to get the news. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) leads the investigation, even as he privately comes to terms with some prior decisions he’s come to regret. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) gets things done by letting his anger drive him, and can be explosive when people get in his way. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are doing all they can to keep their job and home lives separate, and finding that it isn’t always possible. The thrust of the narrative in Spotlight is always about driving toward a point where the news is fit to print, but there are subplots, too, glimmers of personal narratives that find their way in through echoes and expressions.
Still, the work comes first. And it’s hard work. What separates Spotlight from so many stories about abuse is that, while the main narrative follows the journalists, the abuse survivors are also given room to speak, to hold legitimacy and not just be brushed off as hysterical or, worse, branded as liars. Even so, there’s a tenuous relationship between reporter and subject. There’s a telling scene where Pfeiffer has to ask one of the survivors exactly what happened, because he instinctively refers to it as “molestation”. And while the word molestation can refer to something horrific, it’s also a word with alternative definitions that can mean something as innocuous as someone getting on your nerves. It’s a sanitized word that might have initially been used to protect people, but ended up having the insidious side effect of lessening the impact of their story. Tellingly, in interviews with the press following the release of the movie, several of the leading actors referred to the actions of the priests concerned as – yes – molestation. We say “won’t somebody think of the children” when we use language like “rape”, but sometimes it betrays the fact that no one wants to think about the children.
So that’s why, in a film with very little swearing, no violence and no depictions of sexual activity, Spotlight is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK. The stories aren’t sanitized, but neither are they salacious. There’s a byproduct of getting the right story out there, and it’s that the story is sometimes quite upsetting.
The most resonant scene in the film, for me, comes when Rezendes storms out of the newsroom because Robinson doesn’t think the story’s ready to publish. By this point, the team has identified ninety priests in the Boston area accused of rape. They’ve recognized that Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, is culpable in covering up the abuse. They can name and shame, and that’s exactly what Rezendes needs, but Robinson stops him because they don’t have yet have evidence of a wider institutional problem. And Rezendes loses it. Up until this point, Rezendes has—while remaining equally committed to the work—been the most fully rounded character, with moods and whims and regular flashes of brilliance. They’re all people, but Rezendes comes across as the most likely to let his humanity get in the way of his job. He finds his way back, but it’s a moment of rage because his gut is telling him that the men who shattered so many lives need to pay, and soon. Never mind what the head says.
The other members of the team struggle, though, too. Robinson is quietly dealing with the guilt of having had a glimpse of the same story years ago, but doing nothing about it. Pfeiffer breaks a long-held tradition of going to church every Sunday with her devout grandmother. Carroll discovers that a so-called treatment center for abusive priests is just a block from his house, in a neighborhood filled with kids, and has to contemplate the balance between protecting his children and keeping the story quiet. These are, after all, people reporting the story, and each brings their own personal baggage to the table.
This is why journalism, especially the kind of long-form investigative journalism depicted in Spotlight, is difficult. It’s very easy to take someone down or assassinate someone’s character—anyone with a blog and an attitude can do that. Using the press to attempt to enact real change is something else entirely, and requires a tender balance of discretion and calculation for maximum effect. When the Boston Globebroke the story in 2002, the reason it made waves and triggered dozens of investigations around the world was precisely because the extent of the scandal in Boston was so widespread that it immediately cast the rest of the Catholic church in a suspicious light. It wasn’t just a rogue faction: later investigations confirmed that the cover-up went as high as the Pope.
The ending of Spotlight is bittersweet. In most countries, there is a statute of limitations when it comes to sexual abuse, and while the church’s strategy of paying survivors hush money is now something much less likely to fly, the worst that many of the priests accused had to endure was forced resignation; the best that many survivors can hope for is that their abusers are tried in the press.
Once the initial story broke, the Spotlight offices were flooded with tips from other survivors, and it eventually became one of the longest-running pieces of coverage the team ever produced. Before the credits roll, a list of other locations where major sex abuse scandals have been uncovered appears on the screen. It runs for three pages. My hometown was in the list. That has to count for something. There are no winners, though. Even as the story breaks, it doesn’t appear that anyone is looking to destroy the Catholic church, or even necessarily reform it. That’s the job of the world community. The job of the press is to shine a bright enough light on the world’s problems that hopefully someone notices, and tries to do something to change it.
That’s why Spotlight is the sort of film where, despite the subject matter, you walk out a little more at ease, and a little more hopeful for the future. It’s so hard to talk about this film because it’s an aggressively realist depiction of recent history. Yes, there’s a script, and selective editing, and performances that, while never showy, are still nevertheless performances—but at its core, this is something that happened. What the film does, and what the team at the Globe did, is remind us that there are still people out there devoted to exposing the truth, getting it right, and holding authority figures accountable.
This planet and the people on it are complex, and hard to deal with, and when you grow up it can seem like there’s something new and horrible to incorporate into your worldview every day. On the worst days, things can seem hopeless, until you start to see the reactions of the best kinds of people. First responders at Ground Zero. Parisians opening their doors to strangers in the immediate aftermath of mass murder. Anyone who reaches out in the wake of terrible events, rather than withdrawing. And yes, in their own way, a team of four reporters who saw systematic evil and chose to speak out about it rather than to let it continue unabated. It all counts. It all helps to redress the balance. We can only start to make things right if someone’s lighting the way.