“Shine a light, and let the whole world see.”
In the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, the Spotlight team reported that there were over 130 sexual assault victims from just one Catholic priest. In the film Spotlight, we eventually learn that over 80 Boston priests were sexual predators, and were being continuously circulated from parish to parish. If those numbers are consistent, how many victims of sexual assault does that spell out for Boston? My math came down to over 10,000.
I don’t know if that’s accurate because I haven’t dug much further into the Boston Globe’s reporting, but I don’t think that matters. What matters is that Spotlight made me think of those victims. It made me think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Like any great piece of reporting, Spotlight brings importance, urgency, and truth that needs to be known about. If Spotlight isn’t the best film of the year, it is definitely the most important.
The Spotlight team consists of lead editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). The team is specifically reserved for investigative reporting, previously breaking stories on transit mismanagement and political corruption in Massachusetts. At the time when they were given this assignment, it was not as a follow-up to a news story, but to a column written and published by one of the Globe’s staffers.
At first, no one really thought much of the project. When originally pitched, it had to do with the Catholic church finding out that one priest had sexually assaulted children in six different churches, and did nothing about it. But when the team kept digging, they found out that it was bigger than they anticipated. Much bigger.
While watching Spotlight, I was thrusted upon an early memory of one of my first major news assignments. It was a story called “Seconds Away,” and it was about a university alumna who was just seconds from crossing the finish line before it blew up during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. The story wasn’t that she survived. It was that she went back the following year to finish crossing the line that she never did.
While getting ready for our interview, I was excited, nervous, and petrified all at once. This was a woman who had survived a near-death experience. She had faced something few other people have had to face, myself included. I didn’t know how to approach it. Was she comfortable with me talking to her? Would I be insensitive by asking serious questions? Would I be disrespectful by asking what was going through her mind? What would that say of me as a person, by asking her to relive something traumatic that she already went through?
The reporters and editors behind Spotlight face these same questions and concerns of morality every day they step into the office. Yet, they handled this difficult subject in the same way that the movie does: with grace and respect.
The greatest thing that can be said about Spotlight is its transparency: in how its characters charge towards this groundbreaking story and the emotions and conflicts they experience while doing their jobs. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind. The result is a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once.
Take the interview scenes as a demonstration of this. During the film’s first scenes, Spotlight reporters sit down with a few sex abuse survivors, their brokenness and vulnerability made evident on the spot. The interesting thing you’ll find in between these intercut scenes is that it’s not Rachel McAdam’s mannerisms we’re noticing. It’s not Mark Ruffalo’s reactions or face of shock we’re noticing. It’s the supporting actors playing these victims, whom I can’t even identify off of the film’s cast list. Every detail of them is absorbing and introspective.
We notice the gay man in a coffee shop as he twiddles his thumbs nervously on his coffee cup. We notice the skinny drug addict sweating, entering the room cautiously, seeing scars up his arms from when he injected himself with heroin. We notice that while their testimonies are overwhelmingly tragic, they talk about it casually and on a whim; like it’s a scar that has already been healed, but will never go away. We listen to their silence as they quietly relive their traumas, the quivering in their voice as they slowly speak, the tears building up in their eyes as they come to once again realize what they are. I find that so compelling, that one of the best things in this film are the actors that I can’t even name.
The rest of the film is like that: finding value in the areas that you can’t exactly point out, but you know they are there. For instance, who’s the main protagonist? You could argue Rezendes, because he has the most visible reaction from working on this story. In reality though, this story is impacting the entire Spotlight team and more. It impacts everyone, in ways that nobody realizes until it walks right up to their doorstep.
This movie takes time and dedication to build up its story and collect the necessary information, just like Spotlight’s reporters do. In doing that, this is undeniably a slow film, but the pace doesn’t matter as much as the payoff. Spotlight deserves to be sought out. It is one of those rare films that not only makes us better viewers, but also better human beings.