It takes the arrival of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the new Editor from New York to kickstart The Boston Globe into re-visiting the newspaper’s coverage to date of the rumors that have been circulating for years about local priests sexually abusing young children. In this fiercely traditional Catholic city, the Church’s power and influence is widely entrenched in the very fabric of the local establishment, including the newspapers staff, and so any mere hint of dissent is forcibly dealt with by the Church’s hierarchy.
The newspaper has a special investigative unit called Spotlight lead by its editor Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and they are given the task to start digging as far back as 1976 when a Father John Geoghan first ended up in Police Precinct accused of molestation, but released without ever being never charged. Robby briefs his hard-headed reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to start by trying to persuade Mitchell Gararbedian (Stanley Tucci) an enigmatic lawyer known to have acted on behalf of many of Geoghan’s victims. At the same time another of the Spotlight team Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel MacAdam) tries her hand to see if she can possibly pry any information out of Eric McLeish (Billy Crudup) the very slick lawyer who always acted for the Church in these cases and who ensured that not only were the victims paid off with a nominal amount, but that the details could never be accessed as they were in documents sealed by the Court.
Faced with a stalemate, the Team was also slowly beginning to realize that everything is pointing to the fact that not only was Geoghan not an isolated case, but there maybe as many as 90 rogue priests that had committed crimes like this. All the incidents were then neatly brushed under the carpet by the Church Authorities who then simply moved the Priests to their next position. However Spotlight’s luck suddenly changes when reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who has been studying the Diocese’s own records, by chance spots a pattern where the Priests in question were always sent to a treatment centre before being re-assigned to another Parish so that they could (and would) re-offend.
The victims were generally from low-income families with very devout church-going parents, or better still when they were just single parent families after the father had died or left. In these instances even if the abused child dared to tell their story they were never believed as the Priest’s words were considered to be as similar to those of God himself.
Over the long arduous months that they labored on investigating the extent of this regime of systematic abuse, the scale of which even shocked these experienced reporters, Baron held off publishing the story until he was confident that it proved without a shadow of a doubt that the cover up of all these pedophile priests actually went as high as Cardinal Law himself.
The movie helmed by actor turned director Tom McCarthy from a script he co-wrote with Josh Singer is essentially how the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for a remarkable true story that ended with the Cardinal being shipped off to another cosy position in Rome leaving the new leader Archbishop Seán O’Malley to clean up all the mess. Having very successfully dealt with similar epidemics of abuse in his last two dioceses, O’Malley brought with him both his reputation but also a hope that finally the matter would start to get resolved.
Because much of the story itself is well-known, McCarthy focused a great deal on the slow methodical way that the Spotlight team gradually put all the pieces of the puzzle together. We learn the details of the scandal at the same time as the reporters themselves, and the story is as much about how they re-act and deal with this wealth of knowledge, as well as the actual gruesome facts that they uncover. What McCarthy is also keen to show is that the conspiracy to cover up the scandal was not solely confined to the Church, as even the Globe had inadvertently chosen to ignore the many warnings that came their way over the years.
In many senses it’s an old fashioned newsroom drama as it lacks the loud histrionics of the much showier ‘Truth’ that covered the ’60 Minutes’ Investigation that became known as Rathergate, and is currently in movie theaters. Keaton and Ruffalo playing the two main players in the piece go for quiet intensity with a dogged determination and commitment that only sees the impassioned Ruffalo lose his temper once. It all leaves you hanging on to the very end admiring a really excellent drama that will certainly be a firm challenger for some hefty awards, and then you remember yet once again, that for some people this had in fact been nothing short of a nightmare in their real lives.