It’s important to understand what Spotlight is and what it is not. This is not a film about the priests in the Catholic Church who molested children. (2008’s Doubt already masterfully covered that topic.) This is also not about the church hierarchy covering anything up.
This is a film about reporters who realized they had a massive story but realized the community around them may not want to hear it. It’s also about how the publication they worked for had the information around the scandal about a decade before they published the article.
The film manages to create a tremendous energy as the reporters run to find public records and answer phone calls. The casting is also tremendous and the performances great. But Spotlight is great for the same reason All The President’s Men is great. In a cynical age of deep distrust in our institutions, Spotlight is an encouraging movie that demonstrates not everything is hopeless. The fact that the film is about the Catholic Church sex scandal is almost irrelevant – what matters is the fact that there were people willing to question their worldview and find the truth for themselves.
From every technical aspect, Spotlight is a good film. The cast members appropriately play their characters as dogged people who have to fight against themselves and the world to find what they’re looking for. There’s Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head of the Spotlight team. He’s the one who appears the most conflicted about what’s happening. He is eager to learn all about the scandal, but not sure what to do with the information. Robinson also realizes that, while he’s tearing down cultural institutions, he’s a part of one that initially helped cover everything up. It’s subtle, but there are moments when Keaton lets the mask slip and his true feelings show. Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes and Rachel McAdams plays Sacha Pfieffer, two other reporters at the Boston Globe who join the research for the article. They have the same determination but I never got a sense of the same internal conflict. Keaton is the actor who sells the movie and emphasizes what the filmmakers are trying to say.
Spotlight is also shot and edited like a gripping thriller. This is of course exactly what the film is, but one would not expect this sort of material to have more urgency and better pacing than, I don’t know, The Hunger Games. This is because Spotlight easily drew me in with its subject. I knew, as everyone else does, the result of this reporting. Still, it was exciting to see what would happen and how the reporters were blocked at almost every turn. It’s a good reminder of how ingrained the institution was in Boston. But it’s never overt – just a few images of churches across from playgrounds. In an age where directors feel the need to put more and more on the screen to attract our attention, Spotlight’s imagery is simple but effective.
But it’s also a film that stays with you and forces you to confront what it brings up. The journalists are interested in finding the truth no matter what the effects it has on the community are. Several people talk about how damaging the Catholic Church would damage the city. Several of the journalists grew up Catholic and Robinson even went to Catholic school. They are fighting against what they were raised to believe in. Even the victims are fighting against themselves to come forward. One gay man talks about how the priest was the only person in his life who told him it was OK to be gay – before pressuring him for sex. Moments like that still have the power to shock people, because those institutions still do hold a lot of sway. Not just the church – and beloved cultural figure accused of such actions is treated with disbelief.
There are no villains in this movie and the clergy is barely shown at all. Yes, the cardinal who helped cover everything up is shown, but it’s not long enough to set him up as the sort of film noir villain. Only one brief scene is set in a church and few priests are shown. Those that are have far more complex stories than one would imagine.
One scene has Pfeiffer confronting a retried clergyman at his home. He openly admits to “fooling around” with young boys. He does so in a quiet tone with no sign of remorse. It’s shocking, but far more shocking is how he justifies his position that he never raped anyone.
“I would know the difference,” he says.
“Because I was raped.”
The conversation ends when the priest’s sister slams the door in the journalist’s face, but it’s a scene that demonstrates what the film’s purpose is. The scandal goes deeper than anyone guesses. So, to, do the emotions and circumstances surrounding the accused. It would have been easy to make the Catholic Church unambiguously evil, but that also would have been too simple. By placing the institution in the background and only hinting at the people involved, Spotlight can focus on its unique strengths.
The ending of Spotlight is one of triumph as the Spotlight office is overwhelmed with calls about the story the team had spent months preparing. But it’s not a story that’s over – the final text reads how the Globe continued to run stories on this for 600 stories. And that cardinal who covered everything up was simply reassigned and never faced any charges. That revelation caused a few audible groans at my screening. Still, the team opened a giant box and the film is a reminder of how it was impossible to put everything back in the box.
But, as I continue to think about it, I realize that Spotlight is a tragedy. It’s not about the Catholic Church and how the scandal affected their leadership. It’s a tragedy about how this sort of careful reporting about something that can have a big impact doesn’t exist in today’s world.
There are still investigative reporters who do great work, but the impact they have is nowhere near the impact that the people at the Boston Globe did with this story. So many stories today are not reliant on slow gathering of facts and methodical checking, but about making sure that the blood boils a little bit and that “the feels” of the audience are touched in some way. It leads to nothing substantial and when people try this approach to traditional investigative journalism, the consequences are dire.
I’ll give you a famous example – Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” story. Much like the reporters in Spotlight, Sabrina Rubin Erdely thought she had uncovered a vast story involving sexual crimes and a powerful institution that was trying to cover them up. The quotes in the original story describe a fraternity that frequently conspired to rape women and an administrative staff at the University of Virginia that basically shrugged their shoulders at the victims. It was a story that could have had a massive impact in the way the Boston Globe’s story did and, had it worked, may have led to a feature film like Spotlight.
But the writer and editor’s at Rolling Stone were all focused on the immediate impact of their material and making sure that the blood was appropriate boiled. This mean rushing the story to print without verifying anything and without appropriately investigating what happened. As a result, the story unraveled quickly as it became apparent that what their source described could not have possibly happened. Instead of being a triumphant moment for the magazine, Rolling Stone was disgraced with editors resigning, money having to be paid out to settle defamation and libel lawsuits, and the knowledge that no other publication will ever try to seriously investigate allegations of rape on a college campus ever again.
There’s a scene late in Spotlight that highlights this mentality well. Rezendes has gotten the documents via a public records request that proves there was a cover up in a very high-profile case. Robinson doesn’t want to go to print yet because he knows there is a larger story there. What follows in a temper tantrum from Rezendes (which will likely be Ruffalo’s Oscar clip) about how unfair this is and how the story has been written. Robinson’s only response is, “Are you done?”
I can’t imagine that conversation taking place at a publication today – we’ve all seen too many stories that leave us with more questions than answers. Spotlight will hopefully demonstrate that it’s not too late. There are stories out there that involve some powerful institutions hiding things that the public has a right to know. But that’s why the Fifth Estate exists. Spotlight is a great film not because of the excellent craft, the great performances, and the tight screenplay but because of its reinforcement of that message. Nixon is long dead, but All the President’s Men still resonates with audiences. Hopefully Spotlight will find itself in a similar position as time marches on.