Spotlight, the newly released film by director Thomas McCarthy, is receiving a great deal of critical acclaim, along with nominations for multiple film awards. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish approval of a film from interest in its subject matter, and this movie is a case in point. It is a dramatisation of real events: the 2002 news exposé which made public the epidemic of child abuse within the Roman Catholic church, and the official cover-up which accompanied it.
Spotlight is a straightforward investigative journalism drama, along the lines of All the President’s Men or The Insider. It dramatises the real-life story of a team of journalists for the Boston Globe, who uncovered the scandal of child molestation by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area – and the greater scandal of deliberate suppression of the facts by the diocese.
The work of finding witnesses and former victims, tracking down clues, and unearthing secrets provides enough suspense and drama to sustain a script. What adds interest are the side issues, a framework of personal belief, professional courtesies, custom, shame, and secrecy, which allowed the situation to continue unchallenged for decades. As the Globe’s investigation specialists, known as the Spotlight Team, delve further into the painful subject, they also find themselves discovering loyalties and preconceptions within themselves which, they come to recognise, are part of the package of emotions and alliances which made so much of Boston complicit.
The newspaper team continues to find new and surprising layers to their story over months of investigation. The local Catholic church, a significant force in Boston, was provided assistance, ranging from simply looking the other way to active concealment, by the local police force, city government, and schools. Even Catholic parents whose children were abused agreed to maintain silence, and helped to make the cover-up effective. The reporters, mostly born and raised in Boston, had no trouble empathising; their dismay at discovering the guilt of respected figures in the local Catholic church is genuine, and more than one Spotlight members felt reluctant to carry on their work.
The burden of the scandal becomes increasingly heavy for all of them, as the numbers of probable child molesters climbs, and evidence of deliberate collusion by church officials becomes clearer. Interviews with former child victims are disturbing for all concerned. The situation is, quite literally, brought home to one of the more reluctant reporters when his investigations reveal that a church “treatment centre” – a building used to temporarily house priests accused of pederasty – is around the corner from the home where he and his family, including young children, live.
Interviews with a former Catholic priest and psychologist, who once privately counselled pedophile priests and who continued to monitor the situation from outside, offers the journalists and the audience greater insight into how and why it is possible to suppress such an enormous series of crimes for so long. The concept is truly driven home when the team come across a series of news tips sent to their own paper over the years. They recognise that the situation was only investigated by the Globe, at last, in 2002 because of the arrival of a new editor, who was not affiliated with Boston and therefore did not share his staff’s reluctance. The journalists realise that they all had the means to recognise and report the situation, but for various reasons did not. Like the rest of their city, they chose not to know.
The cast of Spotlight is excellent, but it is difficult to point to any one outstanding performance. It is a true ensemble piece, the actors working together and supporting one another perfectly. The characters might tend to blend together and become interchangeable journalists, if it were not for several above average performances among them (Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber in particular) which make some of the team members stand out and become a focus for the audience. The story, although told in an uncomplicated way and with minimal suspense, rarely flags or loses momentum. Some viewers may become impatient with the characters’ anxiety over incriminating the local clergy, including a revered cardinal who helped facilitate the cover-up; but it was a part of Boston culture and needed to be recognised.
While there is nothing remarkable in the look of the film or the manner of telling the story, the events themselves are well and clearly presented, and the movie sustains interest with virtually no gaps or weak moments. My only reservation in praising it more highly is that it does not quite live up to the promise of McCarthy’s first attempt as a director and screenwriter, The Station Agent. Nevertheless, Spotlight is at the very least a good popcorn movie with a solid cast, and an interesting account of an important event which still resonates.