'Spotlight': Sexual Abuse and Journalistic Zeal, Without Melodrama

Four journalists expose pedophilia in the Catholic Church in a film with relevance that transcends the story it tells.

“Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”), is a melodrama that manages not to be melodramatic, and that is its main virtue. We’ve seen quite a few pictures about journalists who take on a powerful institution (Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” from 1976 is the paradigmatic example) or spend years pursuing an elusive target (e.g., David Fincher’s 2007 movie “Zodiac”). But while those films had a melodramatic side that provided a great deal of suspense, what makes “Spotlight” effective is how dry it is.

This virtue is especially notable given that the story involves a team of four investigative journalists for The Boston Globe (they form a team nicknamed “Spotlight”) who fight to expose numerous cases of child molesting within the Catholic Church in Boston and the cover-up engineered by church officials. The church is particularly powerful in Boston because much of the population is Catholic – as are many readers of The Boston Globe, who might resent seeing this kind of exposé in their paper.

The movie opens with a prologue taking place in 1976, when a priest accused of molesting children is arrested and then released to the church, which is supposed to deal with him by its own means. “Spotlight” is openly critical of The Boston Globe and other Boston newspapers for ignoring this and similar cases, which were reported only in short items relegated to the inside pages of the paper. The story then moves to 2001, when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) becomes the new editor of The Boston Globe. The first Jew ever to hold this position, he is determined to look into the matter and assigns the task to the Spotlight team.

The subject of the investigation – pedophilia and the church – might have made for a sensational picture (at one point the journalists realize that no less than 87 priests in the Boston area have been accused of child molestation). The result might easily have been packed with fierce showdowns between high-ranking church officials and the press, dramatic exposures of the priests involved, and heart-wrenching accounts by their victims. “Spotlight,” however, avoids all these, and when they do become part of its plot material, they are minimal and low-key (the reaction of the Boston church officials to the phenomenon and its possible publication is made all the more chilling by how friendly and courteous they are).

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in 'Spotlight.'
Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films

When print had clout

Films about journalistic crusades tend to be romantic, even heroic, and while “Spotlight” cannot entirely avoid this tone, it also remains moderate. If there is something romantic about the story, it is how recent it is – at a time when print journalism still had position and clout. For all its dryness and restraint, the movie can’t help but treat the four members of the team, each of whom handles a different side of the story, as modern-day knights whose work is their calling; we learn almost nothing about their private lives. All four are Catholics who have lapsed to some degree, but the movie shows – again, with great restraint – that after being brought up Catholic and attending Catholic schools, you can never entirely stop thinking like a Catholic, and this naturally affects the way the heroes handle their mission. (The editor’s Judaism is treated with the same restraint; the movie does not make a big deal of this fact beyond mentioning it once in the context of a sharp, possibly anti-Semitic remark made by someone inside the church.)

The four journalists include Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team leader; Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a diligent and driven reporter who comes closest to the movie stereotype of the profession; Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who lives with her devoutly Catholic grandmother and is worried about how she will react when the story comes out; and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). The four receive unquestioning support from Marty Baron and his assistant editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father, Ben Bradlee, was the editor of The Washington Post when it ran the Watergate story that led to President Nixon’s resignation.

The fine leads are one major reason to see “Spotlight,” especially Michael Keaton, who once again demonstrates what an excellent screen actor he is; but there are also excellent actors in supporting roles, such as Stanley Tucci as the attorney who represented victims in the 1976 affair, and Billy Crudup as a slippery lawyer bringing serial lawsuits that the church manages to evade, one by one.

The fact that McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, manages to sidestep melodrama and sensationalism emphasizes how much “Spotlight” is a movie about professionalism. It focuses on the details of the journalists’ work as they make sure their exposé is complete (and that it appears before they are scooped by the competition). That’s what makes “Spotlight” so good, and as a result, the correct but stylistically bland direction is not a flaw; rather, it helps this efficient, unshowy picture reach its goals.

More than once we hear the editor of The Boston Globe say that the goal is not to expose the molesting priests, but rather to expose the system that allowed the church to cover up this widespread problem, which “Spotlight” goes so far as to call psychopathic. The movie, too, emphasizes the system rather than individuals, with the exception of Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the archbishop of Boston, who knew about the pedophilia, kept silent about it and found ways to get rid of child-molesting priests without bringing them to justice. This focus gives “Spotlight” a relevance that transcends the particular story it tells and the particular historical moment when the scandal hit America and made international headlines.

“Spotlight” is not a work of distinctive or brilliant filmmaking, but it is an intelligent picture with good scenes; its refusal to provide the audience with sweeping entertainment is admirable. The movie asks us to follow its heroes as they spend long hours in archives and libraries, pore over endless documents, and make repeated, sometimes futile attempts to interview the people involved. To respond to the movie, you must be ready to submit to the somewhat unexciting nature of the work and of the film itself. That unexciting quality and the factual dryness that comes with it, however, make McCarthy’s movie a document that does not exploit its subject matter; instead, it pays tribute to the search for truth. When that truth is finally revealed, we don’t cheer, as a lesser movie might have prompted us to do, but rather appreciate its complexity. “Spotlight” is therefore not a film about triumph, unlike most movies about the revelation of an ugly truth; it is a film that recognizes triumph as being just a step on the way to the next battle.