In 2001, the “Spotlight” team of four investigative reporters for the The Boston Globe began digging into reports of the sexual abuse of children by a local Catholic priest. What they uncovered was not just the crimes of one priest. Instead they found widespread abuse and a system of covering it up. This star-studded film is both a love letter to the power of investigative journalism, especially in newspaper form, and a sad unfolding of a horrible abuse of power by a trusted, beloved religious institution.
As the movie frames it, the Catholic Church is an integral part of the social structure of Boston. Investigating this story was a betrayal of that sacred cornerstone, almost a betrayal of the city itself. While the movie works well as a suspenseful journalism story like All the President’s Men, the stakes are different. In that movie, an entire president and administration hangs in the balance, but what’s ultimately at stake are jobs, albeit important ones. The journalists inSpotlight, who were all raised Catholic but aren’t practicing anymore, are staring down an ever-widening list of trusted religious leaders who have been molesting children. So while film viewers are watching a team of journalists do their thing, following tips and leads, we are also sharing their horror as they uncover one name after another. While the film has less dramatic impulses than the Watergate movie, the real stakes are so much higher.
This could have been sensationalized—filmmakers could have added scenes of abuse to manipulate viewers. Instead, the movie keeps the descriptions of abuse to a few adults giving uncomfortable interviews about their childhood experiences, and it is painful enough.
The nervous energy Mark Ruffalo brings to his performance as reporter Michael Rezendes informs what his character is going through. He has not been to church in years, but as he tells another reporter, he always hoped that he’d be able to go back someday. The investigation is killing that hope. Michael Keaton’s character, the head reporter for the Spotlight team, must come to grips with the ways that he has contributed unwittingly to the cover-up. And as the journalists investigate, they are all aware that any extra time they take means more children will be abused.
This is not a pretty picture. And for anyone living in a city of any size, it’s a shock at the end of the film to see the list of cities where such abuses were uncovered, because you’re likely to see your own city named. However, this is a valuable film for Christians to watch. It reveals how attempts to cover up the sins of the church and its leaders hurt the body of Christ and ultimately destroy the faith of people who are vulnerable and exploited. (Open Road)