One could posit – and many have – that print journalism is dead, its power sapped by the up-to-the-minute availability of digital media, its reach blunted by digital’s universal proliferation on the devices most of us keep attached to our hands at all times, its old-school pacing bludgeoned by the constant demand for moment-by-moment updates of varying accuracy that has been instilled in this last decade of the digital takeover. In the same way, one could state that a film like Spotlight, which focuses squarely from the level of a dogged print journalist – tracking the ground game, logging the thankless hours of research and analysis, and unearthing the case slowly but surely – is something of an outdated celebration of a media relic.
Spotlight‘s effect, however, is precisely the opposite. The film most certainly underscores the plight of the print journalist, but zeroes in on the importance of building a story, the frustration of fits and starts, the crushing obstinacy of entrenched opposition, and the ultimate catharsis of a job done well…and right. The process may seem ancient but the impact is seismically relevant. And though the film centers on a tight-knit team of four individuals, the scope of their story is staggering and the scale of its importance is the most impactful form of epic – one where the canvas is broad but the impressions are intimate, where the timeline is expansive but the human toll is acutely focused, unwavering, and immediate.
In terms of immediacy and relevance, no social ill is more crippling and insidious than the culture of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The struggle is ongoing, but awareness has spiked in the last decade. A great deal of that awareness is the result of Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, which, in 2001, began an investigation into the cycle of molestation within the local Archdiocese, an investigation that unspooled a decades-long cover-up that ran through the ranks of the Boston religious and legal establishment, all the way up to the highest Vatican officials. Such an ingrained, rampant, institutionalized conspiracy is nearly impossible to grasp, but the Spotlight team delivered an incisive condemnation.
This investigation is expertly contextualized by director Tom McCarthy, whose filmography of intimate human portraits seems to have been slowly building to this most powerful of explorations of the human condition. We the audience are placed in the shoes of the Spotlight reporters, who are used to engaging in long-term investigations but are nevertheless shocked by the long trail of information they uncover as a result of this particular case, especially since it unearths a seedy underbelly of the town they hold so dear. The tight-knit culture of Boston becomes a shadowy figure hovering over the narrative; the same familial ties that would bound the natives together for enormous good (such as what happened in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing) may also be what led to ushering these heinous abuses under the rug, settling out of court without calling attention to the problem…and therefore not opening a path to fix it.
Each of the reporters is impacted in unique ways. For Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), having been raised in the Catholic Church, he sees an identification with the victims he interviews. “It could have been me, it could have been any of us!” he exclaims to his colleagues, in a scene that will likely result in an Oscar nomination for Ruffalo. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is broken by the possibility of breaking the heart and spirit of her devout grandmother, who attends church three times per week. The shock literally hits home for Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who learns that a safe house for former offending priests may be located in his neighborhood, where his kids live and play. Holding them together, steady and determined, is team leader Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), who at first is part of the skeptical old guard but swiftly becomes the impassioned leader in the tenacious investigation, risking his well-established community ties to uncover the truth.
What we learn is that the clandestine effort to hide the church’s abuses was never isolated to Boston, but was coordinated throughout the country and even the world. No one sector was the cause and no one sector was innocent. The entire church organization was complicit, be it willfully or by negligence. More than a decade removed from this investigation, one could argue that none of this is news to anyone who pays attention. And while that may be true, the film’s closing notes, crafted beautifully by McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay and rendered flawlessly by McCarthy’s quietly observant lens, remind even the most vigilant of us all that this is not a past-tense issue. It is current and it is continuous. Each investigation, each story, each revelation, and each indictment is vital and important in the fight against abuse… and yet each is merely a microcosm of what has become a global pandemic. We need to shine as many spotlights on this as we possibly can.