Not every Catholic priest in Boston is a child molester. But in a true story from just a few years ago, an unnerving number of Boston area priests are exposed as molesters. The soon-to-be-awarded film Spotlight tells the compelling story of newspaper staffers and their effort in the early 2000s to get the story about what had been kept secret.
The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team works together to uncover just how many priests are involved and how the diocese covered up the scandal. The team consists of real-life reporters played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James.
Their managers at the paper are newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and publisher Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). The connection between Spotlight and the 70s classic All The President’s Men is more than just major papers breaking huge stories: the editor of the Post in the 70s was Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards in the film.
Baron is eager for the Spotlight team to cover the scandal. It is his guidance that directs them to focus on the church’s complicity more than on the individual clergymen. As it becomes clearer that the church made settlements with victims and families and then reassigned many of the priests to new posts, the effort intensifies.
The team pursues a multitude of leads. Attorneys who know what’s going on (Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are relunctant to share details. The church’s leader Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) is outwardly friendly, but mum about settlements to victims and their families.
But the dogged journalists press on, confident that many of those with information will give it up. And they do. James’ character (real-life reporter Matt Carroll) enters large volumes of information into an computer file to establish a database of errant priests.
Some of the toughest scenes to watch are the recollections of those who were abused by priests, sharing their stories with the Spotlight crew. As we know from media reports locally and nationally over the past couple of decades, the scourge of priest abuse has been widespread.
Tom McCarthy, who directed and co-wrote (with Josh Singer) the script, manages to squeeze a complex, multi-layered story into just over two hours runtime. The story is detailed but clearly told. (Just as editing is a huge part of crafting a newspaper issue, so is editing vital to screenwriting and filmmaking.)
Look for a Best Picture nod for Spotlight and acting honors for several cast members. Ruffalo, Keaton and McAdams are getting significant awards buzz.
We sometimes forget that media outlets are primarily advertising delivery systems. Content is king, yes, but sponsors pay the bills. That’s why media sometimes pull their punches, especially when there’s negative news about a major advertiser.
Spotlight shows the Boston Globe and its leaders courageously taking on a major local institution, the Catholic Diocese of Boston. The church may not spend much money on ads but its influence was and still is mighty. That the paper chose to act in the interest of its area’s citizens is admirable and, in these days of constantly monitored earnings statements and stock prices, almost unbelievable.