Most Bostonians are likely to get excited over anything even semi-related to Boston—The Departed, The Town and Good Will Hunting, to name a few. Spotlight, however, is a movie with which Bostonians will not want to associate.
Spotlight is, in a word, alarming; the word rang in my head ominously as the film progressed.
Although our generation's knowledge of Spotlight may be rather limited, the story had a keen impact on the previous generation. In the new film directed by Tom McCarthy, we follow the reporters of “Spotlight," the investigative column of the Boston Globe, played by a star-studded cast including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton. Under a new Editor-in-Chief, the reporters are assigned to investigate reports of rape and molestation by Catholic priests scattered throughout the city. What they uncover is enough stories and connected information to give them the leverage to sue Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston. Even more shockingly, they are able to do so successfully.
Spotlight depicts the scope of the scandal through the recognition that it is not just a trend for priests to molest young children—it is an institutional norm. While certainly arguable, this is how the issue is conveyed in the film, and it is done so effectively. The characters interviewed in the film are real life victims of rape, and they are forced to recount the gritty details of their assaults, the most traumatizing moments of their lives.
During these scenes, the film becomes an exercise in sitting without squirming. We first hear about the power of the priesthood in the Boston area, followed by how that power is abused through the coercion of these characters to perform sexual acts. One does not even have to hear the story—one can hear the characters sigh and watch their bodies tighten in discomfort before they even reveal their accounts. It is the audio-visual equivalent of watching the most gruesome scenes in a Saw movie.
The main aspect of the story follows reporter Walter Robinson (played by Keaton) as he returns to his high school alma mater, BC High, to report on the rape allegations connected to a priest within the school. We watch Robinson gradually lose faith and pride in his high school as he learns that not only a priest, but also a respected educator, is associated with such allegations. Just hearing “BC High” and “Boston College” as they are name-dropped in the film is cringe-worthy for a BC student. The fact that these institutions were mentioned in a movie about uncovering a huge molestation scandal is nothing short of stomach-turning.
The article won the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 2003 and forced Cardinal Law to step down as archbishop in shame. While the piece is not still widely discussed today, it is just as socially relevant now as it was then. Prior to the investigation, the words “priest” and “rape” were not often in the same sentence, but now “priest” has developed a negative connotation in less faith-based circles.
In terms of the reporters, Spotlight deftly portrays the sensitivity and care with which they treat the article. They know who their audience is—a city filled with devout Catholics who would readily attack the media for its allegations. At one point, all of the reporters are in a room, revealing how at some point in their lives they were raised Catholic. They were dragged to church as kids or attended Catholic high school. Such is Boston, a city built upon the faith of its past.
Furthermore, the film takes a long pause to recognize the 9/11 attacks and how they had to delay the investigation to cover one of the most shocking and disturbing events in American history. They did not want to attack a house of faith, as it became a source of comfort for those who experienced loss and anxiety in the aftermath of the attacks. What becomes powerful to watch is how Cardinal Law appears on a TV screen, trying to comfort millions. The disparity between how the film’s audience sees Cardinal Law and how the people watching him within the film see him provides a stark and potent contrast.
This is the brilliance of Spotlight. The film is able to weave a story that, with sheer power of rhetoric and an astonishing caliber of acting, forces one to (at the very least) question long-held beliefs for a brief moment. This is what truly great films are able to do.