‘Spotlight’ demands attention with powerful, affecting drama

By Isaac Simon

Official "Spotlight Movie" Facebook Page
(Official “Spotlight Movie” Facebook Page)

“Spotlight” is a riveting  film about a personal topic that gets to the heart of privacy and power. Directed by Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, the film explores The Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse of minors within the Boston archdiocese, which was published in 2002. The abuse scandal, although it was uncovered relatively recently, dates back to the 1970s.

The Globe’s Spotlight team set out to investigate the scandal, doing its best to uncover guilty priests and bishops, document the Catholic Church’s systemic history of wrongdoing and interview the individuals who fell victim to this terrible tragedy.

The first figure that seems to catch the Spotlight team’s attention is 13 – the alleged number of Boston priests that sexually abused boys and girls. After learning that the archdiocese has requested that documents containing the names of many more be sealed, the team goes hunting. After a trial and a mandated court order publicly releases the documents, the number jumps from 13 to 87,  and countless victim testimonials follow.

The investigative team is comprised of Mike Rezendes, (Mark Ruffalo) Walter Robinson, (Michael Keaton) Sacha Pfeiffer, (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) Their process for much of the film is slow going. Victims are initially slow to come forward, lawyers are bound by confidentiality agreements and every journalist is conscious and aware of the largely Catholic readership that subscribes to the Globe.

Many victims consider themselves survivors, not only because of what was done to them but also how they have chosen to live and overcome their troubled past. When Spotlight sits down in their office with the first victim, they discover the introduction to a systemic problem, one often overlooked because of the efforts of a tyrannical and abusive archdiocese. These victims were not only physically abused but also spiritually abused. For them, they thought their suffering was part of God’s plan.

The editor-in-chief, Marty Baron, (Liev Schreiber) believes this is a problem that infects the Church from the top down. He is quick to disagree with some of the journalists,  trying his best to communicate that this problem is systematic more than anything else. The film illuminates the fact that victims’ silence is a byproduct of the church’s power in Boston.

The Spotlight team is given orders to suspend its investigation in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, after which the Globe’s entire newsroom is ordered to halt all journalistic ventures beyond coverage of the tragic events. The timing of these events feels especially important in the film.

While the United States was grieving, millions of Americans turned to religion as a place to find comfort and solace. “Spotlight” brings our attention to the countless individuals who couldn’t grieve and find closure because of the way they were personally victimized. The members of the Spotlight team feel (rightfully so) that the victims’ grief takes precedent over the potential healing powers of the church.

Ruffalo gives a stellar performance as a mistrustful yet totally dedicated journalist. His acting communicates journalistic honesty. He comes to display fearlessness in a community that wants to keep this issue very quiet and under wraps. The same can be said for McAdams, who also  delivers a flawless performance.

Schreiber’s performance though, is subpar. As a fresh editor-in-chief, he comes off as weak and removed. While his intentions are good, his character seems to lack dedication in the midst of finding the truth.

The film would be disturbing even if it were not based on a true story. That these events actually took place and was so widespread is, of course, even more troubling. “Spotlight” sheds light on the power of religion and the relentless and ongoing effort necessary to stop further abuse. It is a testament to the efficacy and ethics of investigative journalism.

“Spotlight” is a hugely compelling film, a narrative tour de force that sheds light on a subject that deserves more attention. Perhaps the most striking part of the film was the very end, at which point title cards appeared that listed cities all over the world where major abuse scandals in Catholic churches have been uncovered. The number of cities runs into the hundreds. Ultimately, the film illuminates abuse through a journalistic lens and becomes a testament to the power of the individual.

Isaac Simon can be reached at [email protected]