When the stories about rampant child sexual abuse by clergymen rocked the Catholic Church in 2002, my mother was rising through the ranks within our local Church hierarchy (at least, as high as a woman can ever rise). She worked primarily as a Director of Religious Education, and later rose to Pastoral Associate (second-in-command to the priest). I was in the ninth grade in a Catholic school, and taught Sunday school in one of the programs she directed. I remember my parents and I having a frank discussion in the living room of our house the day the scandal broke, disgusted at what happened and hoping justice would be served. So when we saw the movie Spotlight on Black Friday, it had special relevance for us.
But reading a news report is not the same thing as seeing the story come to life before your eyes, and Spotlight offered a fresh take on the recent past. The movie chronicles the story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the abuse scandal, and they sugarcoat absolutely nothing about the situation. Like the original story, the film leaves few topics unexplored. The reporters’ interviews with victims lay bare the psychological torment that these supposed holy men inflicted on them. Right before the closing credits, the film displays two items of supplemental text that illustrates the extent of the scandal: the team’s finding that around 250 priests were found to have sexually abused young boys in Boston alone, and a seemingly endless list of other cities and towns around the world in which the abuse happened. These statistics knock aside the misconception that this was perpetrated by “a few bad apples.” The film also starkly depicts the intense fear that many have about taking on the Church, right down to a police officer that admits to helping priests cover up their crimes, or an elderly lady that fears being shunned by her friends if she speaks out.
This fear even extends to the reporters themselves. Several of the people who help them publish their exposé are revealed to have sent evidence of the story to them as many as five years prior to their investigation. The leader of the group, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), admits to having ignored this evidence when he was editor of the paper’s Metro section. This serves to humanize the characters, and helps the audience understand that this isn’t a simple good-versus-evil dichotomy, and many people deserve different degrees of fault in the scandal.
The acting in Spotlight is some of the best I have seen in a while, as the actors become so immersed in their characters that the audience really believes that they are a crack team of journalists working to expose a cover-up. Particularly poignant is a scene in which Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) blows up at Robinson because he is reluctant to publish the story without more proof that Boston Archbishop Bernard Law knew about hundreds of cases of abuse and did nothing. Rezendes wants to get the story out before another paper finds out about it and mishandles the story, and in that moment, the audience can see how this has become more than just something to sell papers for the Spotlight team. Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci also turn in virtuoso performances in their roles.
This is a film that will probably not attract a wide audience, due to the previously described uncomfortable feeling that many have with regard to exposing church corruption. This is unfortunate, because, there are important lessons in here that can be applied to other problems our country faces. But perhaps the biggest takeaway is this: human beings are imperfect, and whether they are a “man of God,” a football coach, or a group of wealthy bankers, no one should be elevated to the point where people believe them to be above reproach. While context should always be taken into account in any situation, everyone should be held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. This is why, no matter who you are, you should see this movie.