Dir. Tom McCarthy; Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams
[3.5 / 4 stars]
Spotlight wrestles with complicated themes of guilt, shame, responsibility, and morality while proving the power of effective storytelling. The film begins in Boston in 2001 when Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) assigns the paper’s special Spotlight team (a small group of journalists that focuses on underreported issues) to investigate a sexual abuse allegation against a local priest. The team, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and composed of Michael Rezendes, (Mark Ruffalo) Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James), digs deeper and discovers a massive cover-up of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church that is much more far-reaching than any of them had initially thought. With a stellar cast, an emphasis on the victim’s stories, and a compelling message about social responsibility, the film achieves what it set out to convey brilliantly.
The film is well cast. Keaton as Robby leads the team with the perfect mixture of no-nonsense dedication and sensitivity. Ruffalo gives what is one of my favorite performances as the stereotypically pushy journalist, but he is pushy not for profit or fame but because he cares about the victims. McAdams is dogged and serious in a way that I have rarely seen her in other films but thoroughly enjoyed. She is fully engaged, asking the difficult questions while simultaneously comforting the victims. These characters are portrayed sympathetically. Their dedication is admirable, and they struggle to separate the web of abuse from the Boston they know, especially when some of them have children themselves.
Initially, this is a film about journalism and its process. We are shown every part of the investigation, from the failed and successful interview attempts to the stacks of court documents and the pages of pen-scribbled notes on handheld notepads. The inclusion of these details sets important groundwork for the viewer to understand how the journalistic process functions.
The film spends a lot of time portraying the victims’ stories, which are some of the most powerful parts of the film. Rather than focusing on one victim, it weaves together multiple narratives, backgrounds, and sentiments. In one scene, a victim named Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) sits in the Spotlight office and explains how special he felt when a priest paid attention to him. “When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal… How do you say ‘no’ to God?” he said. The camera pans slowly around the room, focusing on the face of each Spotlight member, and then returning back to Phil again, a middle-aged man with glasses. This panoramic shot creates an inclusive visual space that places the viewer uncomfortably in the middle of this horrific retelling of abuse. By putting us here, the director forces us to confront this situation directly and to grapple with the shame that the victim feels. This scene, and others like it, makes the film more uncomfortable but ultimately more impactful since we cannot shy away from what is painful. Like the Spotlight team, we must face it head on.
McCarthy often forces us to do this by placing a church in the background of many scenes, where it looms over everything, watching. Even viewers feel uncomfortable with its presence and what it has meant for so many victims. This violation of trust not only harmed the victims physically, mentally, and emotionally, it also affected them religiously. Being abused by a priest affected the kids’ relationship with God and their connection with spirituality, and many became alienated from the church after being abused.
The church’s literal presence and power weighs on the journalists as well. In one scene, Rezendes goes to listen to a children’s choir. As they sing in a beautiful church, the camera moves slowly across the beaming faces of the choir. The slow, gentle tracking shot heightens the suspense and reinforces the importance of the team’s reporting. Rezendes stands near the back of the church and fidgets as he watches the children perform, wondering which of them may also have been a victim. His distress conveys the responsibility he feels for the Spotlight team to expose the story soon in order to prevent any additional abuse.
The most powerful part of the film occurs when it addresses the silence of those who knew what was happening and did nothing. When an expert predicts that there are approximately 90 priests in Boston that are guilty of abuse, Globe editor Ben Bradley (John Slattery) says, “90 priests? If there were 90 of these bastards, people would know!” Rezendes replies simply, “Maybe they do.” This short line cracks open everything we think we know about society and the nature of responsibility. We wonder why or how people could know about this abuse, choose to not tell anyone, and let it continue. We contemplate what their morals must be if they did not feel obligated to address the issue. Yet, it happened. Many people did exactly that, taking the term “bystander effect” to a new level. The film makes viewers feel alone and disheartened in this world where people knew that extensive child abuse was occurring and simply did nothing.
Everyone who knew about the abuse seems to think that it was none of their business. As Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), an attorney representing the church, protests, “I was doing my job!” “Yeah,” Robby responds quietly, “You and everyone else.” So many people knew about the abuse that was happening and did nothing about it for a variety of reasons, from guilt to fear of repercussions to societal backlash. While the priests abused their power, many around them were disillusioned or didn’t see it as their responsibility. But the film is careful not to direct the blame entirely on one person and points out that even the Spotlight team is partially responsible. It turns out that Robby had been sent a list of 20 names of victims five years ago and hadn’t paid it any attention. As Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney representing the victims, says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Although the film tries to come to terms with what happened and explain why so little was done to stop the abuse, it is ultimately unable to do so because it is not a question that can be easily answered.
While Spotlight is breathtaking for its message and the truthful way that it’s conveyed, the film is not perfect. The witty dialogue seems too snappy and quick for real-life conversation; it sometimes sounds more like a newsroom seen on TV than an actual newsroom. In addition, the Church has protested the way some of its members were portrayed in the film, claiming that they were shown to be complicit in the abuse when they were actually working to address it. But its faults aside, Spotlight is an impactful film that is both painful and encouraging. It reminds us that there is always a group of people who have the courage to speak up and tell the difficult stories.