“Spotlight” is, quite simply, a great film with a rich, enveloping story. That’s the best way to put it, but really, Tom McCarthy’s film requires more. More detail. More depth. More of why it had such an impact on me. I’m not Catholic, and not particularly religious, but this film grabbed me, partially because it reminded me of films like “All the President’s Men,” “Zodiac” and “The Paper” in how it approached the “journalism procedural” at the center of it’s story, but also because it had to look at the face of evil that can lurk within religious institutions, and come out on the other side with an uncomfortable truth. All of the people at the center of “Spotlight’s” have a religious horse in this race, and they have to reconcile with that side of them for the greater good of their community.
In 2001, the Boston Globe brought in a new editor, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who had plenty of experience in newspaper, having previously been with the New York Times and Miami Herald, but wasn’t from Boston, and was definitely not Catholic. (He’s Jewish, for the record.) That brings with it a lot of anxiety from the journalists and columnists at the paper who have deep Boston roots, and are worried of having the status quo upended. Well, they are certainly right on that, as in his first meeting, Baron wants to know why they haven’t written much on recent accusations brought against a retired priest, John Geoghan, who allegedly abused over 100 children. A civil suit has been brought against Geoghan by 25 of his alleged victims by lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has been after this story for a while. To dig into it, Baron enlists the Spotlight team at the Globe, whose focus is on issues that affect the community at large, to dig deeper into the story. His main goal is to keep at the Geoghan case, and allegations that the Cardinal in Boston knew about the abuse and did nothing, but almost immediately after Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team (which includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) get started, the story gets much bigger, and more threatening. Could there possibly be 13 priests in the Boston area who have abused kids, and not been punished? One source, who’s studied the topic for 35 years, poses it could be up to 90. Robinson and his managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father risked his job on the Watergate scandal, can hardly imagine it, and not only get a lot of pushback from the outside, but within. A scandal of this size could tear a community apart, and sink the paper. Some stories are too important to be swept under the rug, though, and as we’ve seen in the intervening years, this is definitely one of them.
I mentioned “Zodiac” when it came to films that “Spotlight” reminded me of, and I’m sure a lot of that is because of the obsessive energy Mark Ruffalo (who plays Mike Rezendes here) displayed in both films playing someone who doggedly pursues leads on important cases, but the truth is that like that film, “Spotlight” baits it’s hook with enormous subtly and power before pulling us into a sea of evidence and unknown depth that our protagonists get lost in. During “Zodiac,” it was the brilliant staging of Zodiac’s first killing, and in “Spotlight,” it is a scene in a police station in Boston in 1976 where a family has accused a priest of molestation. A bishop comes and gets the priest, promising that he will seek counseling and be removed from his post. This sets up the most painful secret at the heart of the Spotlight team’s investigation, that while these priests may be removed from their parishes, they are not reprimanded or defrocked by the church but ultimately moved to other parishes with the seemingly innocuous excuse of “sick leave.” It makes the team sick to their stomach, and the idea of having upwards of 90 priests who have abused children in the Boston area not only possible, but quite probable. Director McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”), who wrote the deft script with Josh Singer, doesn’t go for big swells of drama but places one bread crumb after another for the Spotlight team to find, and the effect it has on the viewer is devastating as each revelation brings with it worst possibilities. When Robby and Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams’s character) go to visit a lawyer (Eric Macleish, played by Billy Crudup) who was involved in settling one of the most high-profile of these cases, he isn’t able to say anything due to a confidentiality agreement, but when they try and look up the public record on the settlement, the lack of one in court leads to a realization that lawyers like Macleish have been enabling the church to cover up these abuse cases by settling under the table, a gross miscarriage of justice for the victims of these priests that also points Robby to the direction of a friend who may have been privy to many of these cases. In a cast of equals, Keaton is the MVP, leading us down this dark rabbit hole with determination and painful conflict that is very different from his similar role in “The Paper,” and makes Robby’s own concerns about the case, and why he was blinded to it for so long, palpable. This is more than just a one-person show, though, and Ruffalo, McAdams, d’Arcy James, Tucci and Schreiber all have great moments, especially when they’re confronted with the realities of what they’re uncovering, especially while talking to victims. One of the most remarkable moments is when Rezendes is interviewing one of the plaintiffs Garabedian is working with, and before the interview, wants to make sure Rezendes doesn’t use his name, because he’s not sure he wants to tell his kids. By the end of the interview, he tells Mike that he’s comfortable having his name used. He understands the importance of what he’s doing, and he’s done hiding from his past. That reflection on a moment where he lost his innocence is one of the moments where “Spotlight” becomes something more than just a movie, and becomes a study in how complicated life can be, and inspiring when people look at the heart of darkness, and dare to shine a light on it. McCarthy’s film gets under your skin, and reaffirms the good that journalism can do at it’s best, even when it is faced with humanity at it’s worst.