A person convicted of sexually abusing a minor spends the rest of his or her life marked for the behavior to protect potential future victims. They show up on public lists and searchable maps; they are legally required to away from children. But the Catholic Church spent decades knowingly shuffling priests from one region to another after victims of child molestation reported incidents, relying on the shame of the children, the parents, and everyone involved to keep the issue concealed from the press, the law, and future victims.
And in 2002, The Boston Globe uncovered the story that had always been there.
Spotlight is a fairly grounded retelling of the reporting that resulted in the Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse scandals propagated and hidden by the leadership of Boston’s Catholic Church. For a movie with such a corrupt, flawed, and unlikely villain in the Church, (battling a group of truth-seeking journalists, at that), Spotlight is a film fairly devoid of typical heroes or villains. There are no menacing figures in trench coats whispering threats, throwing bricks through windows, or following the journalists in the dark as they drive home from work.
The real enemy of truth in Spotlight is a combination of shame and disbelief. And everyone plays a part – no organization more so than the Church, but also from lawyers, the legal system, and even the reporters themselves. There is no smoking gun that made the scandal’s revelation possible. In fact, the whole thrust of the story is set in motion only when the paper’s new editor asks why the reporters never followed up on a columnist’s coverage of a sexual predator priest. The journalists run through the typical feelings of skepticism that kept the story protected for so long, contemplating every variation on the question: Is this really worth looking into?
But ultimately, the team of four journalists and their leader, encouraged by the paper’s editor, dismantle the scandal piece by piece, spending months understanding the scope of the abuse, the Catholic Church’s knowledge of it, and the psychology behind the behavior. The reporters even speak to a priest who admits to abusing children because he had been abused by a priest himself as a child, revealing the depth and cyclical nature of the cover-up.
Almost anyone who was alive in 2002 will remember when this story broke, which can make the notion of a film on the subject feel like an uphill battle: the ending is a foregone conclusion. But fans of The Wire will be pleased to find writer and director Tom McCarthy at the film’s helm (McCarthy actually plays the role of Scott Templeton, a Baltimore journalist, on season 5 of The Wire). McCarthy has learned from the masters, and follows The Wire’s gritty, fleshed out approach to story-telling. And while McCarthy’s screenplay and vision for the film as a director are the most essential elements for its success, Spotlight also owes a great debt to the understated and even performances of its ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, and John Slattery.
It’s hard to find much at fault in Spotlight. After being spoiled by the visual flourishes becoming so standard in film from master cinematographers like Hoyte van Hoytema and Roger Deakins, it’s worth noting that Spotlight isn’t a beautiful film. But given the film’s subject matter and narrative, it might almost feel bizarre if it was. It’s just not that kind of movie.
Spotlight is surely going to be a film that sticks around in a small way until Oscar season, when it breaks big with audiences after a slew of nominations. Whether you wait until then or pull the trigger now, this is one to add to your list.