Mitt Romney famously once said, “Corporations are people.” That’s debatable, but it is certainly true of newspapers—where the journalists live among the communities, people, and systems they report on. Boston is a largely white Catholic town and, in the year 2000, there was a similar demographic at The Boston Globe, where many of the reporters were white, Catholic, and male, and the editorial higher-ups maintained a good—bordering on chummy—relationship with the Boston Archdiocese.
In many ways, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which tells the story of the investigative reporters who uncovered the full scope and range of the church’s pedophile priest scandal, is a celebration of journalism. Spotlight is the department of the Globe devoted to long-term, scorched-earth reporting—a kind of necessary luxury few newspapers can support these days. But it’s also an indictment of powerful systems and the cover-ups they engender. Indeed, before The Boston Globe was part of the solution, they were part of the problem.
It takes an outsider, in more ways than one, to break through the paper’s tendency to bury (or at least downplay) the scandal. When new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at The Globe in late 2000, he doesn’t fit in. He’s not a golfer or a backslapper. He’s Jewish and a loner—no wife and kids—and as played by Schreiber, not an especially charming man. But he is a serious journalist. And he asks the Spotlight reporters—including their chief editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and enterprising reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—to investigate not just the clergy abuses, but the wide-reaching cover-up. They interview victims, now adults—still mostly shell-shocked and scarred from the abuses they suffered as children—as well Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the colorful and righteously angry lawyer who serves as their advocate. It takes a while for the Spotlight team to convince their subjects that the story will be told thoroughly this time—and put on the front page.
The specific details of the Catholic priest scandal were, of course, ghastly, but to me, this film is more about systems and cover-ups and how deeply entrenched they can be. (We’ve seen this in the NFL, at Penn State, and as recently as the apparent Laquan McDonald cover-up in Chicago). This is what makes Spotlight so important. It’s Robinson, played brilliantly by Keaton (all hail the Keaton Komeback!) who realizes, with some horror, that he’s been glad-handing many of the people directly involved in the cover-up. Nobody at the Globe wants to take down the church—and in particular, the avuncular Cardinal Law—but as they uncover the truth, they realize that they must.
Spotlight is acted and directed with great urgency—and a little bit of necessary dread. Each disclosure is more sickening than the last, especially once the reporters realize they could’ve broken the story years ago, had they only followed the leads. Just as importantly, Spotlight captures the rhythms and culture of a newsroom perfectly: The banging on doors, the urgent phone calls, the chasing of leads, the tireless digging through microfiche and archives (it was 2000-2001, after all). Spotlight plays like a mystery film combined with a conspiracy thriller combined with a righteous condemnation of the abuse of power. At a time when so many are cynical about journalism, it’s a testament to the power of the press. And as the film also proves, with great power, comes great responsibility.