Thanks to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and eOne Films Australia I had a chance to watch Spotlight recently. It’s due to open in January Australia-wide, and could not come at a more timely moment in Australia’s history with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse currently underway. Admittedly, this is what influenced my desire to see the movie, but Spotlight isn’t a movie about a church cover-up of child abuse by John J. Geoghan and other priests — I think I was surprised at how not surprised I was about the cover-up. It’s about the investigation by the Boston Globe Spotlight team into the cover-up.
But, even as that happens, the movie also makes clear that the Globe and the community didn’t want to see that the Church was covering up the abuse. Catholicism is present in a big way in the movie, it has to be, and it blinds people, from reporters to cops to lawyers to law clerks. No one wanted to believe the Church was capable of this sort of cover-up until they couldn’t ignore it anymore, including the Spotlight team.
It took an outside editor, Martin Baron, to turn the team’s attention to the story, and it took some convincing to get them on board with it. But Baron persisted and helped clear obstacles that allowed the team to pursue the investigation. To Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, investigating the cover-up is something the Spotlight team and the Globe should have naturally done and it surprises him that they haven’t. He is utterly unmoved by the power of the Church in Boston or the Cardinal. It took an outsider to the city to point out what the paper should have done. That if nothing else, shows how blinding faith is.
The movie is set in early 2000s, when flip-phones were all the rage, as was microfiche and computers doing all the searching and scanning was barely a possibility. There’s a scene in the movie, where the entire team figures out a way to identify the priests they suspect the Church was protecting: it involves going through directories of priests in Boston in different years, underlining/circling the entries they needed and then giving it to another reporter who entered all the data into a spreadsheet. Old school right? It probably speaks to how used I am to computers doing all the work that this scene stuck out to me.
The film follows the reporters through numerous interviews with victims, earning their trust, getting them to talk and then having to explain to them why the paper wasn’t publishing anything because the entire world was focused on 9/11, which happens in the middle of the investigation. The film also takes great care to show how far the cover-up reached as I mentioned above, including within the Church ie, Cardinal Law and the lawyers that helped the Church with the cover-up with victims.
The cast of the movie is pitch perfect, especially Stanley Tucci, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton. Tucci plays a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, for the victims, beaten down by the roadblocks thrown up in his way by the Church as he pursues justice for his clients. He is the first link in the evidence change the Spotlight team found, and he wants to believe in them, but experience has taught him better. It’s Mark Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes that is given the Herculean task of convincing him the team wants to tell the truth, and that comes down to him beating down his resistance until Garabedian believes him.
Rezendes is also the character that’s us, the audience, who wants to throw caution to the wind and expose the Church far too early, while Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson maintains the focus of the team in pursuing the Cardinal in Boston at the time over printing the truth too early.
Thinking about it now, the movie is as unbiased as you can get about such a topic, and perhaps that’s why some may think it’s unemotional. Don’t get me wrong, the reporters are angry at themselves, the Church and the law that protects them, but telling the story is about facts, about the truth that no one can deny, and that warrants a dogged pursuit of the truth, even if at times it makes them unemotional. As the movie progresses, it feels like the reporters are experiencing a thousand paper cuts as they peel back the layers of lies of something they believed in utterly.
It’s not an easy movie to watch by any means, and it shouldn’t be. But, above all else, it should be watched. These are the stories that need to be told.