Spotlight, the film released on Friday, appears at first glance to be a scripted homage. The movie offers a fictionalized portrayal of the Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2002 exposé of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Spotlight is this generation’s All the President’s Men, nostalgic enough to remind us of microfiche but timely enough to influence the very story that it depicts. The film’s paper chase is an energizing validation of the methods of investigative journalism honed in the 1970s. The Globe’s reporters of the early 2000s would have been raised on the cinematic depiction of American icons Woodward and Bernstein.
As the power of the presidency looms over Washington, so the Catholic Church reigns in Boston. And the drama of Spotlight is full of Irish Catholic lawyers, cops, editors, and judges. According to the movie, it takes an outsider to this world to fully question its power structures. Newly arrived at the Boston Globe from the Miami Herald, editor Martin Baron (played with dispassionate intensity by Liev Schreiber) gets a few sideways glances for his own faith and background. “So the new editor of the Boston Globe is an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball,” is the dry observation of one archdiocesan insider. Baron, who refuses Red Sox tickets at one point, is shown reading the Globe in a scene at a coffee shop, while Mass empties out across the street.
Baron upturns the city’s status quo of conspiracy and denial by filing a legal motion to unseal certain court documents, which would uncover key internal documents from the Archdiocese of Boston. “You’re going to sue the Church?” he is asked repeatedly by nervous Globe staffers. Baron pushes his team to look further into the Catholic sexual abuse allegations. (Incidentally, Baron is now the top editor at Woodward’s Washington Post.) “Show me the church manipulated the system … Show me that this was systemic—that it came from the top down,” he tells the reporting team.
His reporters know the drill. They are perfectly matched against the institutional self-protection of Roman Catholicism in its fear of scandal. Uncovering institutional corruption is what makes for Pulitzer Prize-winning stories. In their quest, viewers find the American value of transparency and the dazzling thriller plot as it unfolds.
In important ways, however, Spotlight as film departs from the invigorating catharsis of All the President’s Men. Its secondary narrative is a gothic tale of sinister complicity. As a lawyer for victims of sexual abuse (played with predictable excellence by Stanley Tucci) tells a reporter: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” As we follow the journalists through Boston and Springfield courthouses, Irish Catholic neighborhoods and the town’s elite all-male Jesuit school, we cannot fail to see that the priests’ sexual predation is wrapped in multiple forms of protection and privilege. The viewer, well trained for a rehearsed realization of the chase, a narrative of clarity and vindication, must also confront the role of chance and tragedy. “So where were you?” even one of the film’s heroes must be asked, and perhaps cannot answer. “What took you so long?”
The first sign of this internal issue is that members of the Globe Spotlight team must literally turn inward, to their own paper’s files. Who is this abuser, this Father Robert E. Barrett, noted in clips in the Globe’s basement? Already, we must sit with important questions about what their reporting historically did not do, as well as what it did. This same lesson plays out in the film’s opening scene, a flashback when Globe reporters are absent when a bishop and assistant district attorney arrive, anxious to escort Father John Geoghan—decades later convicted of child sexual abuse, and since accused of sexual abuse of nearly 150 people—from his latest mishap. “It’s gonna be hard keeping the papers away from the arraignment,” a young police officer tells his superior, with due earnestness. “What arraignment,” the officer rebuts. “Pfh,” and lights a cigarette. The priest and bishop drive off and reporters are nowhere to be seen.
A frail but intense abuse survivor, Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff), leads the local chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priest (SNAP). He sits down with the Spotlight team, and describes his experience as an 11-year-old boy. “When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” he begins. “And when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal.” Detailing the progression of his abuse and how a pedophile priest groomed him, he adds, “How do you say no to God, right?”
As the investigation continues, the younger reporters are especially taken aback by what they are learning. There’s a book already out about the cover-up? There’s an ex-priest turned psychologist, Richard Seip, who has been studying the phenomenon for years? “I sent this all to you guys five years ago!” Salviano bursts out on the edge of tears of rage and frustration. He holds a box filled with papers. “It’s all right here.” But no one at the Globe seems to have ever seen that box. And still, some Globe insiders readily dismiss Salviano. He’s a “damaged” guy with “an agenda,” who “wants a holy war.”
For decades in the hermetically sealed world of Irish Catholic South Boston, especially among poor families and vulnerable children, ordinary people lacked recourse against the Church. One young man is asked by a Spotlight reporter how his mother responded when the bishop came to acknowledge the sexual assault of her child. “My mother,” the now-grown man spits. “She put out freakin’ cookies.” A Boston police officer readily admits at a diner: “Yeah, the chief knew. Everybody knew.” Another mother, with a cross around her neck, says, “There was a lot of pressure to keep quiet. But not just the church. From my friends. From the other parishoners.” These scenes add an element of cruelty to the lawyer’s line that “it takes a village.” Catholics knew, and didn’t know. They were always the victims, but only sometimes were they the persecutors. The film, then, is a vehicle attesting to the greater dignity these vulnerable people deserved.
The levers for change, then, really depend upon the ways in which Boston Catholics occupy their worlds and relate to institutional power. The camera shows middle-aged, male hands digging through an old box and pulling out an aged yearbook. There is a photo of Father James Talbot, a genial-looking priest, later an accused child molester. The scene pans back to show the hands belong to Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight Team editor, in his own garage at night, rummaging through his Catholic memorabilia. “He was there when I was,” the lapsed Catholic reporter says to himself.
Robinson later sits down with one of his classmates, from the Jesuit Boston College High School, who was a hockey player there. “I never even told my wife,” the classmate says of the abuse. In a formal sit-down as a journalist, Robinson relays the meeting to the new school president and another BC High alum, who now works in PR. In the office, a portrait of John F. Kennedy and a crucifix hang on the wall. To the dubious classmate, Robinson recalls, “He said he always wondered why Talbot picked him.” Robinson asks the friend if he played sports in high school. “Yeah. Football. Why?” Robinson himself ran track. “Father Talbot coached the hockey team,” Robinson says. “So I guess we just got lucky. You and me.”
Much of the critical focus of Spotlight is Boston wrestling with itself, with its own sordid silence. The journalists here are not “self-satisfied,” as some anticipate. The very shock of the journalists provides the momentum for the film. But the film can also feel laborious. Unlike the trailer for Spotlight, which gleams and snaps, the film itself can feel closer to PBS than All the President’s Men. Furthermore, and not unrelated, the viewers are constantly directed to behold the suffering that a combination of personal malfeasance and gridlocked institutional collusion have pressed upon their victims. In one harrowing scene, a survivor describes his molestation by Geoghan, which happened while ice cream slowly melted down his childhood frozen arm. Ten years later, a reporter notes, track marks scar those same arms.
Spotlight also strikes me as only too fair to Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned from the archdiocese after the Globe‘s investigation. Len Cariou seems awful genial as Cardinal Law describing his efforts in the Civil Rights movement and dropping his Harvard alma mater into the conversation. The film also cuts to Law making a statement in response to the 9/11 attacks that is begrudgingly excellent. The Catholic Judge Constance Sweeny, in hearing arguments for the unsealing of court documents, chides the lawyers for the Globe: “Don’t say ‘the cardinal.’ Say ‘the archdiocese.’”
In this sense, Spotlight is a coming-of-age tale for Boston’s post-Vatican II Catholics. One of the crisis points of the film is a scene where Mike Rezendez (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams)—both raised Catholic—are beginning to wrestle personally, as well as journalistically, with the import of their stories. On the experience of reporting the story, Rezendez tells his friend, “I think I figured that one day I would actually go back. I was holding on to that.” Later, at Christmas Eve Mass, we see Renzendez standing at the back of the sanctuary watching a children’s choir sing “Silent Night.”
For those of us interested and invested in religious lives, the Spotlight story is enriched by its exploration of not only of the guilt at the top, but also the far more complex networks of social, religious and legal worlds. The film showcases uncanny moments of Catholic presence and power. In one scene, Cardinal Law gives Baron a copy of the Catechism. “A little gift, Marty,” he says. “Think of it as a newcomer’s guide to the city of Boston.” The package is modestly dressed in brown packing paper but sliced with silk crimson ribbons.
Pfeiffer also acknowledges the importance of the Church to her own family. “I stopped going to church with my Nana,” she tells her reporter friend Rezendez. “It was too hard.” She’d sit there and start thinking about the abuse victims—“and I just got so angry.” She doesn’t tell her grandmother what she is working on at the Globe. But unbeknown to her, Nana, played by Eileen Padua, is made of stronger stuff than her journalist granddaughter knows. When she reads the breaking news in the paper, she has tears in her eyes, but she keeps reading.
Finally, Spotlight as a film operates not only in a depiction of a journalistic enterprise where the guilt goes all the way up, or the story of a religious culture where the complicity goes all the way in. It is acting on the viewer in ways that she may not appreciate. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy has Irish heritage, was raised Catholic, and attended Boston College. That he sat down to tell his own “strong Catholic” father to say “I’m doing this” surely echoes what happened to the Globe reporters with older generations of Catholics in their families. The film was difficult to finance, McCarthy told Variety. “It was brutal. It was dead three times. It kept falling apart.” It is compelling to consider, then, not only the role of media as investigative journalism, but also what is accomplished in this second-order rendition that plays with and upon the All the President’s Men script.
However for McCarthy, Spotlight is an instrument of pedagogy, as much when it shows in your local theatre as when it opened at the Venice film festival—in Catholic Italy, home of the Vatican. “It was not lost on me that this would be the perfect place to premiere this movie,” McCarthy said to Variety. An early Boston-area screening of the film was a closed evening held for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. SNAP is both alerting survivors to the pain of revisiting difficult histories, and calling upon its members to participate in outreach for the film. There is a larger performance that the film hopes to realize as a vehicle of recounting tragedy. The movie and its release illustrate that Catholics’ relationship to institutional power is, as ever, a process still in motion.
Mara Willard is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.