Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), Best Director (Tom McCarthy), Best Film Editing (Tom McArdle)
SUMMARY: In Boston in 1976, a Catholic priest is arrested for molesting children. However, as a rookie cop quickly learns, this is not noteworthy, nor it will it become public: as his veteran partner insinuates, there is a pattern of these arrests, which are always hushed up by the Church (used here, as in the movie, to refer to the Catholic Church) with the cooperation of the District Attorney’s office and the police. The film then shifts to 2001, when The Boston Globe hires Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) as an editor. Baron, in turn, quickly meets another editor, named Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robinson is the editor of the Spotlight section, a special portion of the paper that conducts in-depth investigations on certain topics. Due to the length of time that these stories take to investigate, their publication is not daily; it is a special, occasional (though regular) addition to the paper. Baron has seen an article about a lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), in which the man claims that a priest in Boston was abusing children — and that the Archbishop knew about it and did nothing. With Baron’s encouragement, Spotlight begins to look into the issue. As this is still unofficial, the small team of reporters is told not to identify themselves as working with the paper; however, when Garabedian initially refuses to comment, reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) reveals his employer. The team learns that the priest in question, John Geoghan, had been moved several times in his career, always after an allegation of sexual abuse that was hushed up. However, as they continue to investigate, they learn that this is not a case of one priest who misbehaved: there are quite a few priests, just in Boston, who seem to have done the same thing. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the Archdiocese was aware of this problem, and used a sophisticated cover-up to keep things quiet.
The reporters contact Phil Saviano, who runs a support group for people abused by priests; from him they learn the name of several other priests to investigate. This brings their total number of priests to 13, but then they talk to Richard Sipe. Sipe worked at a rehabilitation home for pedophile priests, and estimates that six percent of all priests had this issue. The team is stunned to realize that if this figure is correct, that would mean there were 90 pedophilic priests in Boston alone. By looking at records of the movement of priests, they begin to compile a list of names of potential abusers: they are even more stunned to realize that they have come up with 87 names. Things are going very well for the team, who begins to contact victims for further corroboration. Then the September 11 terrorist attacks occur, and the story is indefinitely shelved. Some time later, Rezendes learns that there are public records showing that Cardinal Law (the Archbishop of Boston) was aware of the sexual abuse, and did nothing about it. He wants to take this evidence and publish the story immediately, so that no one else is abused. However, Robinson insists that they wait until the whole scope of the scandal is revealed. His decision is vindicated when the paper wins a court decision to have relevant legal documents unsealed. These documents confirm that the Church engaged in a massive cover-up for years, that involved hundreds of incidents of abuse. In early 2002, Spotlight begins to write the story. Before printing, a team member questions why it took so long for the scandal to come to light. Robinson reveals that in 1993 he received a list of 20 pedophile priests that he never investigated, leaving him with a lot of guilt. Baron points out that his dedication to the story now will help end the scandal and cover-up. The story is printed, along with a web link to the official documents and a phone number for victims. The very next day, the phones in Spotlight begin ringing off the hook; the team has to bring in extra help just to keep up. As the film ends, a list is shown of the places in which such scandals occurred. It also notes that Cardinal Law (the Archbishop of Boston) resigned, but was later promoted to a very high position in Rome.
MY TAKE: I can sort of remember when all this broke, but I’m not Catholic, and I was pretty young, so I didn’t really grasp the significance or the scope. Unfortunately, I do now. The movie is really good, and the tension as the team fights to uncover evidence is terrific. However, the actual story that they’re investigating is awful. Basically, a large number of priests (approx. 6%) engaged in sexual abuse, usually with children. The incidents that were reported (one can only assume that many were not) were then hushed-up by the Church. Instead of forcing the priest to resign or sending him into some kind of therapy, the Church simply moved him to a new church, where he usually continued to do the very same thing. And this went on for decades. Think of the message that sent to the kids who reported the abuse — they did what they were supposed to do, which had to have been difficult, only to have it pushed under the rug. Serious self-esteem blow. It also probably caused serious trust issues, as you’re supposed to be able to trust and confide in priests without fear. There’s one scene I remember very well — a team realizes that one of the rehab homes for pedophile priests is in his own neighborhood, only a little ways from his own house. Now, I don’t know for sure what the laws were in Boston in 2001, but it seems like people should have known if there were a bunch of pedophiles (priests or not) living in their neighborhood. We certainly have a lot of laws concerning convicted pedophiles and where they can live and work. However, the cover-up by the Church was so comprehensive and established that virtually nobody knew. In a way, the Church almost acted like the Mafia. It’s a horrible story, but watching it unfold is gripping. Terrifically acted and paced. And you know it’s good, because it beat out The Revenant, Bridge of Spies, Mad Max, The Martian, The Big Short, Room and Brooklyn for Best Picture. I’ve seen Room (and several of the others), and was really unsure of how something could top that. After watching this movie, I understood.
RATING: Really, really good.