Given the precipitous Internet-driven decline of print journalism over the past decade, Spotlight vividly reminds us of the clout of a local newspaper speaking truth to power.
Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy. On screens around New England on Friday, November 6.
By Glenn Rifkin
It is likely that Spotlight, the journalism drama about The Boston Globe team that broke the Catholic Church pedophile priest story in 2002, will be well-received around the country. This is, after all, a superbly written, beautifully acted film that can’t help but strike an emotional chord with movie audiences everywhere. It will immediately join the pantheon of iconic journalism films like All the President’s Men and Good Night and Good Luck. With a stellar cast that includes Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery, attention will be paid.
But if you have lived in the Boston area for any length of time, Spotlight will pack an even stronger punch. Because this film, more than any of the bleak crime films like Black Mass, The Departed, Mystic River, The Town, et al, is the quintessential Boston movie, capturing the essence of the multi-layered, deeply emotional, provincial sensibility that underlies this devastating story and its impact on the city.
Brilliantly directed by Tom McCarthy, an actor whose directing credits include The Station Agent and The Visitor, Spotlight is ostensibly a newspaper story focused in a stark and unpretentious manner on the Pulitzer Prize-winning efforts of The Globe’s Spotlight team as it painstakingly tracked and unraveled the systematic manipulation by the Boston Archdiocese in covering up a legion of pedophile priests. When the story broke, it set off seismic shock waves across the city, the nation, and the world. The Globe had taken on one of the city’s most formidable institutions with its vast resources and influence, and demonstrated the capacity and importance of the press. Given the precipitous Internet-driven decline of print journalism over the past decade, Spotlight vividly reminds us of the clout of a local newspaper speaking truth to power.
But McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, isn’t satisfied with raining kudos on The Globe investigative team. Spotlight delves deep into the psychology of complicity, of intimidation, of the willingness of so many to look away because of deeply held cultural and religious beliefs toward the powerful institutions in our lives. The hypocrisy of purported men of God using their cover as priests to prey upon the most vulnerable young children is offered up in the context of Boston’s tightly knit neighborhoods, its parochial social mores, and the impact of lifelong relationships and friendships that color judgment and rationalize heinous acts. Guilt lies in obvious and sometimes not so obvious corners.
As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, the determined attorney who led the effort to sue the Church and who is played superbly by Stanley Tucci, says to Globe reporter Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”
The not-so-subtle message of the film is that while The Globe’s effort was laudatory and game-changing, so much more could have and should have been done far earlier, including by Globe editors who had pieces of this story filtering through their hands for at least three decades before launching the Spotlight team effort in 2001.
The film itself is riveting; deftly spinning its story without falling back on cliché. In 2001, The Globe, having been purchased by The New York Times in 1993 for $1.1 billion, was feeling the impact of the Internet on advertising and circulation. A highly regarded local newspaper, The Globe was in the midst of an ever-expanding sense of ennui in its Morrissey Boulevard newsroom. A new editor, Marty Baron, had just been hired from The Miami Herald, and cutbacks were in the offing. The vaunted Spotlight team, led by veteran Walter V. (Robby) Robinson (a terrific Michael Keaton), was casting about for a new project, and when the soft-spoken but direct Baron, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, meets the group, he mentions a column by Globe writer Eileen McNamara about a local pedophile priest who had sexually abused young parishioners for decades.
Baron, bringing fresh eyes to the city, sees a story where the team apparently doesn’t. He tells them to put aside everything else and go deep into this investigation. In a city like Boston, where the Catholic Church and its local leader, Cardinal Bernard Law, have vast influence, The Globe has hesitated in pursuing this story, under-reporting the occasional troubling incidents that reach the newsroom. Law, played by Len Cariou, invites Baron, a Jew, to meet with him and explains that a city’s great institutions ought to work together for the common good. His gift to a skeptical Baron is a book of the Catholic Catechism. Instead of being considered a newcomer, Baron is called an outsider. But he is unintimidated and undeterred.
The investigation is long and painstaking. The team, which includes reporters Sacha Pfeiffer, Rezendes, and researcher Matt Carroll, relentlessly track every lead, seek out victims to speak on the record, and chase down the rogue priests who are still very much in evidence around the city. Pfeiffer (full disclosure, Sacha is a friend of mine), played by the talented McAdams, rings doorbells in the neighborhoods, seeking interviews with the victims. Her deeply sensitive handling of these conversations, which force victims to relive their personal nightmares, is accompanied by a relentless determination to get them to tell their stories in detail. If the story isn’t told in full, it will dilute the impact.
Ruffalo as Rezendes and Keaton as Robinson represent the film’s emotional center. Both are superb and strikingly display the deep well of inner conflict this investigation spawns. “It could have been you! It could have been me,” Rezendes thunders when Robinson delays the publication of the first story. Raised as Catholics, most of the team has emotional skin in the game as this horror story unfolds before them.
McCarthy and Singer began working on the Spotlight script in 2012. They spent countless hours meeting with The Globe reporters in order to gain a connection to each character. McAdams portrayal of Pfeiffer, after spending extended time with the reporter, is spot-on, down to speech patterns and body language. In an endless quest for authenticity, every detail about family, dress, homes, cars, and the reporting experience, was culled by the production team.
The reporters and editors are still around not just the city but the paper, and have been enlisted as active participants in the marketing effort for the film. Pfeiffer, Rezendes, and Robinson are on The Globe staff today, though Pfeiffer and Robinson left for other opportunities before returning. Baron is now the editor of The Washington Post, Carroll is at the MIT Media Lab, and Ben Bradlee Jr., (John Slattery) who was The Globe’s deputy managing editor, left years ago to become an author. Bradlee Jr. represents a link to All the President’s Men. His father, the late Ben Bradlee, was the legendary editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, and he was portrayed in that film by Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance.
Beyond an enthralling story well told, Spotlight has an enduring quality that is already creating media buzz. In an era when journalists are only slightly more popular than lawyers, the film is a potent reminder of the vital role an active and strong free press plays in a democracy. In 2002, The Globe published nearly 600 stories on the scandal and identified nearly 250 priests and brothers accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. At least 1,000 victims in the area came forward, and major abuse scandals were then reported in cities around the country and the world. Cardinal Law was forced to resign, and the aftermath reverberates within the Catholic Church to this day. The team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service. Sadly, it is a story without an ending but it is a story well worth experiencing via this exceptional film.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.