Like the majority of the human race, I don’t usually care a whole lot about the kinds of movies that win Oscars. But I had to make an exception for this one. After all, my day job is being a journalist, and I’m also a Christian (though not Catholic) which means I pay attention to church scandals the way a patient pays attention to a cancer diagnosis. So this movie’s plot struck a personal chord with me on two fronts.
It’s based on the real-life story of a team of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe who uncovered the widespread cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in their city and around the world. The movie starts in 2001, when Martin Baron becomes the new editor at the Globe. He finds out the Spotlight team is between stories, so he gets together with their editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson, and asks them to look into a history of lawsuits against a local priest who went to trial for child abuse. As the four reporters dig deeper, interviewing victims, lawyers and clergy and searching through court documents and church directories, they begin to realise that particular case is just part of a much bigger problem that the church has been covering up for decades.
Journalism is probably one of the most mis-represented professions in fiction. Reporters are usually portrayed as dishonest vultures who are more than willing to disregard ethics and laws for the sake of a good story–that is, when they’re not glamorous heroes who travel the world braving bullets and explosions in search of The Truth. Spotlight is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that shows reporters just doing their jobs as they would in real life. Those jobs are not glamorous. For the Spotlight team, uncovering The Truth meant hours–days!–of poring over church directories and legal documents, showing up early to courthouses, talking to the same people over and over again, and asking very difficult questions. But they are absolutely portrayed as people who care about telling the truth, especially if it means ending a cycle of consequence-free crimes against children. Which, of course, they end up doing. And according to most of the real-life people shown in the movie, it sticks pretty close to what actually happened.
So, as a journalist, I found the film inspiring–not to mention educational. I’m fairly new to the business, so I found myself taking mental notes on the characters’ interview techniques. I also spent half the movie drooling over the Globe’s spacious headquarters, huge staff, and ability to let reporters spend a whole year on one story. Let’s just say my newspaper doesn’t have quite those resources. Someday… *sigh*
Of course, there’s really no way to make a movie that deals with child abuse “fun.” Thankfully, none of the incidents the Spotlight team reported on are actually shown on-screen, but some victims do describe their experiences in detail, so–sensitive viewers, beware. (The movie is also rated R for containing the normal amount of swearing one hears in a newsroom.) Even now, years after the scandal came to light, it’s still shocking to see just how common and accepted pedophilic priests were in the church. There’s a particularly chilling moment when one priest casually talks about molesting young boys like he was recounting a trip to the baseball stadium, and then reveals that he himself was raped as a child, presumably by another priest.
All the reporters on the team are portrayed as lapsed Catholics, and the investigation clearly shakes their faith even more. Several victims talk about how their abusers’ position as clergy made it harder to resist them or to tell anyone else about the abuse. As one victim puts it, “How do you say no to God?” The script doesn’t get preachy against Christianity–it’s far too well-written for that–but it clearly shows how hard it can be for some people to believe in God when others do evil in His name. And, as much as I would have liked to see at least one example of a righteous priest or churchgoer in the movie, I can’t argue with that point. Neither would the apostle Paul, which is why we have Romans 2:23-24: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
This movie shows why I believe it’s so important for church leaders to be held accountable to their congregations for all their actions. No man should ever be equated with God in the minds of his followers, and none of his sins should ever be covered up.
Spotlight is an excellently-acted, well-written film about real-life heroes taking down real villains. And while it’s not as fun as some of the other movies that have featured Mark Ruffalo as a hero, it is important, and I highly recommend it.