In 2001, the Boston Globe published a series of articles detailing the way the Catholic Church covered up for pedophile priests caught sexually abusing children. Spotlight tells the story of the journalists who researched and wrote that story. I love movies about intrepid journalists, and Spotlight can really only be compared to the best of them, films like All the President’s Men and The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and is favored to win. It’s a masterpiece of ensemble acting. I can’t really recommend it strongly enough. It does, however, raise a very interesting and important question, regarding truth and fiction and how we structure stories based on historical events.
All right. Here’s what the film tells us. Reporters at the Globe had heard rumors of priests molesting children for years. Everyone was also pretty well aware that the Church, and specifically Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the archbishop over the Boston diocese, a very well respected figure in the community, would much rather not see a story in the city’s leading newspaper about pedophile priests. Had Cardinal Law known about and covered up for guilty priests? No one particularly wanted to find out.
Then the Boston Globe got a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), hired from Miami. A Jewish editor with a fine track record, but not a Bostonian, not Irish-Catholic, an outsider. Initially, the reporters and editors are suspicious of Baron. One of the main story lines has to do with the way Baron gains the respect of the paper’s reporters.
The Globe had an elite team of reporters, the Spotlight team, three reporters and one editor, tasked with taking on big, complex stories, and given the time and resources to really dig deeply into important issues, with no mandate to publish anything immediately. For the most part, the movie deals with the Spotlight reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), and their editor, Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). So that’s the first decision made by the filmmakers–to focus on four main characters, not a single protagonist. Robinson reported to a higher editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), so Bradlee becomes another key player. The Spotlight team looks like a terrific place to work; each reporter has his/her own strengths, and Robby, their putative boss, isn’t afraid to dig in and work alongside them; an outstanding boss. They clash a little bit, but it’s about process and deadlines, not the substance of what they’re doing. You get the impression of four smart, dedicated people, who respect each other, and work well together. You sense that Matt Carroll was a particularly strong researcher, that Pfeiffer was a particularly effective interviewer, that Rezendes was good at negotiating the legal system. And Robby was plugged in, to the power structure of the city, its shakers and movers.
So that’s the second choice made by the filmmakers. The heart of the film has to do with the mechanics of researching and reporting, not really interpersonal conflicts. Three men, one woman, but not a hint of sexual or romantic tension between them (a filmmaking choice I applaud). Just four people who are really good at their jobs, working on the story of their careers.
The story is, of course, explosive, especially in solidly Catholic Boston. And Robby is warned throughout to expect pushback from the Church hierarchy. So is Baron. He’s given a courtesy visit with Cardinal Law (the terrific Len Cariou), who tells him that the city works best when its most important institutions work together. And Baron politely responds that he thinks a newspaper works best when it’s most independent. He and Law agree, cordially enough, to disagree. And then Baron’s Spotlight reporters write a story that couldn’t possibly make the Cardinal (and the Church he represents) look worse.
Because the facts of the case, as they’re gradually revealed, couldn’t possibly be more horrifying. We learn the details of the story as the reporters learn them, and–this was at least my experience–are as devastated as the reporters are. At one point, the reporters conclude that there were 13 priest/pedophiles molesting children in Boston. Bradlee is skeptical–there’s no way there could be that many. Then, in a conversation with an expert on pedophilia, they’re told that the actual number is almost certainly much higher, in the 90s. And their investigation expands, and they confirm that number. And then the number continues to grow, into the hundreds. It’s devastating.
But what’s kind of astonishing is how little the Catholic Church or Cardinal Law does to impede the investigation. Robby is told by several of his powerful friends in Boston that this is an explosive story, that he shouldn’t pursue it. And initially, he wants to publish a more limited story. It’s Baron that urges the team to continue to expand their investigation, to look into the institution of the Church itself.
They’re not reluctant to do it for reasons of piety. They just know they have a powerful story, and want to publish. Their boss, the newpaper’s editor-in-chief, is the one who pushes them to delay publication, to get the whole story, to implicate Cardinal Law and the Church itself. And the Church’s response? Pretty limited; even a bit supine. No threats of legal action. No strikes by the paper’s largely Irish Catholic work force. Not even a response by Church spokespeople.
There is pushback and resistance. It comes from rank-and-file Catholics in the city; a clerk at the City Records office, for example. He’s a bit surly towards Rezendes. To put it in structural terms, this is a film with four protagonists, and no real antagonist at all. Unless the film’s villain isn’t a person. Unless it’s just . . . Irish Catholic Boston cultural pressure. Subtle and quiet.
That’s the most important decision made by the filmmakers here. They could invent a bad guy. They could have upped the pressure exerted by the Church. But that didn’t particularly happen, I think, and they wanted this film to hew pretty closely to what did actually happen.
That’s a decision I applaud. It makes the film perhaps slightly less dramatic than other Hollywood ‘based on a true story’ type films. I generally think historical truth–to the extent that it’s discoverable– is more interesting and can be more dramatic than more overtly ‘dramatized’ versions.
Hollywood loves ‘true’ stories. And in almost every sense, Spotlight does not feel like a Hollywood film. I rather shudder to think of the missteps this film, blessedly, avoids. (Manufacturing a romance between Pfeiffer and Rezendes comes most immediately to mind; blarg). The result is a film that honors some terrific journalists, and that forces us to confront the reality of the horrible events those journalists exposed. It’s really beautifully done. Kudos.