Spotlight – “A world where this integrity isn’t supported is a scary place…”

At the core of Tom McCarthy’s Oscar nominee, Spotlight, is community. There’s a close-knit community of hacks investigating the abuse by priests in Boston. Then there’s the Boston community itself; mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; alone with their demons and trying to make their way in the world. Finally, the Catholic Church and their intimate knowledge of sins committed with the get-out-of-jail-free-combo of forgiveness and penance. Spotlight shines a light on them all from the context of the Boston Globe, a newspaper that sees the writing is on the wall for them too, as the internet slowly inches towards the print-press giant.


Turning back the clocks to 2001, ‘Spotlight’ is a small group of investigative reporters that tackle local issues in the Globe, ensuring that city-wide issues are explored in depth and brought to the fore in a major spread. Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) leads the team and, though an expert in his field, Robby knows that new boss Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has arrived to cut costs. Amongst his reporters are Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a passionate interviewer, keen to tackle tricky Bostonians. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), a wide-eyed roving reporter; an expert in teasing out the details and ensuring that subjects are comfortable and happy to be put on-record when relaying awful memories. To complete the team, family man Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); expertly sifting through and pinpointing vital information.  To justify Spotlights’ expensive long-term reporting, Robby accepts his new boss’s invite to tackle a controversial case involving Catholic priests and child molestation. This is an investigation taking on the Church, in a city where over 50% are Catholics. This is a crime whereby victims (the vast majority in poverty) are ashamed to speak out. As the team dig, the ugly side of Boston emerges.

In 2006, 55,000 people worked in the US newsroom. In 2013, it was 36,700. The Pew Research Centre discovered in 2006, that $46 billion was spent on advertising in newspapers, while in 2014 it shrank to $16 billion. The events of Spotlight play out in an era whereby print press, and the Boston Globe, was a major news source employing thousands of people and making a considerable sum in advertising. This is not the case now in the industry. Crucially, this type of long-form investigative reporting on a local level is difficult to afford in this modern world. While the horrific story of abusive priests plays out and, extremely late in the day, the newspaper catches up, we can’t forget that it is less likely for such reporting to take place in 2016. Not to mention the expert attention to detail by Schreiber, a softly spoken man who clearly has an axe to grind. If the boss at the top lacks the integrity to push the issue further than the abuse could’ve continued.


We’ve seen how high up knowledge of child abuse goes in the Church. Alex Gibney’s 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (interestingly, using Spotlight actor John Slattery to translate the interviewees) details the case of four deaf men who were abused in the 1960’s, and shockingly connects the dots to the Vatican. Priests with warped perspectives on what constitutes criminal activity sends a shudder down your spine in Spotlight; it goes without saying that knowing the extent across the world this took place upon is truly appalling. This is one enormous story that was hidden in Boston. But towns and cities across the world had to contend with systemic abuse that was covered up by priests and lawyers for years. Spotlight isn’t simply telling us this known story. Spotlight is telling us that unearthing these personal stories is less possible without local newspapers. Victims who don’t want to be named need to trust the interviewer; they can’t if he or she is a stranger. The tools to dig are disappearing as the money to support these stories is dwindling. Local issues are the starting point for nationwide – indeed, worldwide – stories

Keaton knows people and this is how he is able to dig. There are multiple occasions whereby his intimate knowledge of Boston is crucial to the investigation. Ruffalo, and his pursed lips, as if he is about to explode at any point is like a ticking time bomb. Rachel McAdams (finally completing an investigation without the mess of the second series of True Detective) maintains strength and composes herself when hearing the most horrific testimonies. They know, and care, about these people because they are neighbours and school friends.

A world whereby this integrity is not supported is a scary place. Spotlight expertly runs a story of abuse in a city, whereby core members of a community took advantage of their parish. But it’s also a celebration of community; of people working together towards the greater good. So many nods to knowing your neighbour; The father swinging his child at a playground; the older man living with his sister; the overwhelmed lawyer, desperate to help those in need. We need communities and Spotlight reminds us how important they are – and how proactive and vigilant we must be to maintain them.

This review was originally written for Culturefly in January 2016

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