We have progressed far enough now that we can easily look back at the turn of the millennium with a sense of wonder, reflection and some fear. The clock had barely clicked over into a new century when we found ourselves in a state of panic and paranoia; first Y2K, then a Presidential election that we couldn’t resolve, then the horror of 9/11, then accidents, disasters, war, terrorism, scandals, emergencies and through it all the country suddenly found itself unsure what to make of itself anymore. It all seemed too much for such a short time. It seemed that the atonement for lot of old sins were finally being demanded.
Few bombshells hit quite as hard as the one that went off on the morning of January 6, 2002 when The Boston Globe began running a series of a stories about the permissiveness of The Catholic Church when several priests were accused of systematically molesting young boys. The Globe revealed that such a thing was hidden by The Church whose response was to quietly transfer the guilty to other parishes. There were deals with victims, legal statutes, and worst of all, local Catholics so fearful of taking on the church that they were willing to keep quiet about it. Within less than a year, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston resigned a disgrace – yet that didn’t stop Pope John Paul II from giving him a position in Rome. One man in the film puts it bluntly: “The Church thinks in centuries.”
Spotlight is not about abuse, nor is it about the machinations of the priests themselves – what they did was horrible enough. The movie is an intelligent examination of the investigation to break down the ancient walls that kept the story from becoming front page news. There are no priests seen in this movie and what they did is mercifully not seen in flashback. We hear about their actions through the words of the victims, about how such abuse breaks not only self-esteem but also breaks one down spiritually. We hear very clearly that some of those who were abused found solace with the needle, or the bottle. They were lucky because the rest resorted to suicide. These stories bring an urgency to the investigation.
The horrible stories come from the words of the victims, but we the viewer are kept out of the walls of the church. Spotlight is instead an exhilarating old-fashioned newspaper movie in the mold of All the President’s Men, Zodiac and Absence of Malice that follows a team of Boston Globe journalists called Spotlight as they begin to dig under the allegations that some seem determined to keep under wraps. The editor of The Spotlight Team is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) who oversees a team of three reporters; fair-minded Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); work-a-holic Michael Rendez (Mark Ruffalo); and combative Matty Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). All four of these reporters are Boston locals, all are Catholics, but all admit that they have fallen away from the church. When the paper gets a new editor, a soft-spoken Jewish Floridian named Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), he begins to question why the story isn’t being followed up. Why did the Globe receive information on these priests and then bury it in the Metro section? Why were those stories not followed up?
The movie follows their investigation as they begin with the case of John J. Geoghan, who is alleged to have molested many children over a long period of time. But that case opens another case and then another and then another until the case of one man has become the case of many men who committed an atrocity and then were protected by The Church. What did those in power know? What do those in power know? How many were there? How far back does it go? How high up does it go?
We feel the David and Goliath struggle here but director Thomas McCarthy doesn’t force anything, yet keeps the story at a breathtaking pace. He lets the information be the star as we become so engrossed in their investigation that we wait for the moment when something will break. The tension here is at the level of a great thriller, especially when the story’s forward momentum is interrupted by a certain national event that delayed The Globe’s progress by for four months. Plus, watching these reporters hitting the streets, questioning witnesses, tussling with lawyers over documents, and flipping through file cabinets we are aware that their kind of journalistic leg work is soon to end. Long form journalism still exists but not at this level at a time when true journalism has to fight for space with the superficiality that is sweeping it right into the dustbins of history. To watch Spotlight is to watch history in action, not just in busting open the long-delayed stories of molestation in the Catholic Church, but in the manner in which it is done. This is one of the best, and most important, films of the year.