“The city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” Catholic cardinal Bernard Law says to Boston Globe editor Martin Baron, who politely dissents and claims that the paper should stand on its own.
Thus sets up the central conflict of Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s meticulously crafted drama about the journalistic investigation into the clerical sex abuse and cover-up perpetrated by the Catholic Church of Boston. The screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer lands its punches while resisting the temptation to spiral into melodrama or lionize the protagonists. Not a moment is overdone, and every word carries the weight of truth, largely thanks to the near-perfect harmony among directing, writing, and acting.
The cast is outstanding, driving the plot forward with both intensity and subtlety. Every character was fully developed with their own histories, passions, and distinct personalities: Mark Ruffalo’s kinetic, relentless Mike Rezendes; Michael Keaton’s steely-eyed Walter Robinson; Rachel McAdams’s tough but tender Sacha Pfieffer; Liev Schreiber’s sphinx-like Marty Baron; Stanley Tucci’s fiercely honest Mitchell Garabedian. Such an amazing cast could have easily cancelled itself out, but no one chewed the scenery or fought for screentime. Still, these characters are not white knights—they are human. They miss clues, explode in anger, and for years, they even looked the other way while men in their own backyard preyed on the weak. But these are our everyday superheroes, the people who fight for truth day in and day out without begging for recognition.
Fittingly, the film is submitting all of its performers in the “Supporting” categories at the Oscars—there is no lead, and all the characters truly need one another for the film to work.
McCarthy’s direction is subtle but skilled, deftly guiding the viewer’s emotions and attention. Spotlight is a detective thriller disguised as a journalistic drama, joining the ranks of classics like All the President’s Men, Zodiac, and Frost/Nixon. McCarthy created a tangible sense of dread and paranoia, which is brilliantly juxtaposed to the pervasive religious imagery. The brazen Christian iconography throughout the film is absolutely haunting, and a certain rendition of “Silent Night” almost made me sick. A seemingly innocent house on a street corner suddenly becomes unnerving. As our heroes trek through Boston, finding and interviewing the victims, there is always a Catholic cathedral looming in the background—what was once sacred, beautiful, and reassuring is now menacing. That is the power of this story.
Early in the film, Joe, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, tells his story to Sacha, simply saying, “Then he molested me.”
Sacha leans in. “I think language is going to be important here,” she prompts gently. “Just saying ‘molest’ isn’t enough. People need to know what happened.”
As humans, we cloak the monstrous in euphemisms. We call it “unspeakable” or “unthinkable”—designations that are true simply because in using them we make them so. Such softball labels allow the perpetrators to hide in plain sight, and the victims are left alone with the memory of a tragedy that is anything but “unthinkable” to them. A distinct point Spotlight makes is that the priests are not solely to blame. Lawyers, law enforcement, and even the press exploited shame and secrecy in order to keep the priests’ horrible crimes masked as “unspeakable.”
“If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says, “it takes a village to abuse one.” It took the courage of a few honest people to shatter the euphemisms, oppose the complacent village, and unleash the full truth.
While characters like Mike are clearly resentful of the Catholic Church and faith on the whole, the movie itself is not necessarily anti-religion. It is against the abuse of power, the destruction of innocence. The movie’s stance is staunchly anti-evil, for lack of a better description. It reflects the perspective of the Spotlight team, one that is grim and pessimistic but grounded by facts.
Spotlight is a difficult film to watch; it confronts us with the horrifying consequences of denial, deception, and complacency. Nonetheless, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking, an important testament to human will and spirit. I challenge any viewer to not be moved in one way or another by the time the credits roll.