My Rating: 7 out of 10
The story of Spotlight is one that would be almost impossible to believe if it weren’t actually true. Not because the church is infallible or that attorneys cannot be corrupt, but because the amount of people involved in the cover up (both complicity and not) is utterly mind boggling and, frankly, unbelievable. But the shocking truth is that the events portrayed in this film did occur and went shielded from the public eye for decades until the Spotlight team from the Boston Globe uncovered them.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film’s plot, Spotlight focuses on an elite group of journalists within the Boston Globe known as the Spotlight team, who research and report on some of the biggest stories in the business. In particular, the movie tells the story of this team uncovering the Catholic priest child sex abuse scandal in 2003. The film dives deep into the world of investigative journalism, the effect of the internet on how news is reported, how the cover up could go on for so long, as well as the psychology of both the victims and perpetrators.
One of my favorite things about Spotlight was that it focused on the journalism side of the scandal instead of on the abuse alone. This really highlighted the fact that the members of the Spotlight team are in many ways modern day heroes, but also showed how the journalistic investigation could have collapsed in various ways and prevented the story from getting out. For example, the Boston Globe needed to make sure they broke the story in just the right way in order to achieve maximum impact and try to actually make a difference. For this reason, there were a couple scenes where the journalists had to wait to release incriminating information on some of the attorneys and priests involved in the scandal. What these journalists do is not particularly glamorous or exciting, but Spotlight manages to make it as fascinating as any action thriller.
In my mind, this type of meticulous planning and passion are things that have somewhat disappeared in the journalism of today. With the internet giving people access to an unlimited trove of information, the newspapers, magazines, and television shows that survived had to adapt to the times, which largely means focusing on catching bits of as many stories as possible as quickly as possible. In our modern times, the quality of work matters much less than the speed at which you can churn things out in order to appeal to a mass audience. Detailed labor has been replaced by instantaneousness. During the course of the investigation, the 9/11 attacks occurred, which take precedent over the sex abuse scandal for a time. Had the investigation been pushed off long enough, it might never have come to light that the entire church was in on covering up the crimes of these individuals.
The story of Spotlight is one that had to be told eventually as I’m sure that there are many people that still don’t know how far reaching the scandal was (and still is). I, for one, felt like I had always grown up with the knowledge that all priests may not be as trustworthy as they seem, but I couldn’t believe how recent the story was broken and the scope of scandal itself. The story was broken within my lifetime (when I was around 13), but I was probably too young to be fully cognizant of it. The lists shown at the end of the film were particularly powerful as they showed all the dioceses in the word with priests involved in some sort of sexual abuse. These lists made it clear that while the investigation and subsequent new stories did shine a spotlight on the issue, there is still a lot that needs to be done in order to fix things and get justice for the many victims.
With all this said, Spotlight is not about bashing religion or the Catholic church. It shows a variety of characters from a variety of backgrounds who deal with the information in a variety of ways. For example, Rachel McAdams’ character (Sacha Pfeiffer) lives with her highly religious mother and is heartbroken to watch her mother read the article, while Mark Ruffalo’s character (Michael Rezendes) can’t bring himself to go to church anymore after the team begins to uncover the scandal. The overall message is not that religion is wrong or that the church is bad, but that the church is run by men, who are flawed and not divine beings. The way that the filmmakers showed us how the personal lives of all the members on the team were effected by the investigation really drove this point home and made the film even more poignant and real.
The acting is definitely one of the strongest parts of the film. All of the actors and actresses do an excellent job of embodying their individual characters and immersing the audience in the story. Mark Ruffalo in particular was like a totally different person from the guy that plays the Hulk in the Marvel movies. Even the smaller roles felt so real and were able to elicit so much emotion. The victims felt like real victims and the priest that Sacha Pfeiffer speaks to who admits that he molested children was so real that you are able to feel some sympathy for him. In fact, I was waiting for a good portion of the movie for them to go back to that priest and delve deeper into his story. I wanted to hear more about the fact that many abusers were abused themselves as children.
In the end, the filmmakers made a choice not to focus on one single character, but to show the importance of each member of the Spotlight team and how they helped bring these abuses to light. This at times made the story a little disjointed, but overall it worked to get across the importance of teamwork. Like in The Big Short, the outsiders and odd-balls were the ones that brought things to light that everyone else was comfortable pushing under the rug. There is even an interesting twist involving coverups going on within the Boston Globe itself, which really highlights the severity of the issue at the time. Unlike The Big Short, however, there were a lot of legal terms that were not explained in detail and many different characters coming and going, which made it difficult to get a full grasp of what was going on during certain points in the film.
Overall, I definitely recommend going to see Spotlight while it is in theaters. It wasn’t my favorite of the current Best Picture nominees, but it is an important story that should be heard and features an excellent assortment of actors and actresses.