Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.
Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.
Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”
Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.
Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).
Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.
Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.
Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.
Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”
In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.
This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.
Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.
Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?
This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?
With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.