Directed by Tom McCarthy
There are obvious comparisons to be made between this movie and All the President’s Men (1976), but while that film featured two reporters venturing deep into a world they didn’t have much access to, Spotlight follows a team of reporters uncovering a scandal taking place in their own community, one they could have noticed had they been paying more attention.
At the Boston Globe in 2001, the spotlight team is a small group of reporters who work on in-depth stories that take months or even years to research and complete. We establish early on the world of the film. It feels very much like the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman film already mentioned, with the bright, bland newsroom and buttoned-down shirts, but there is emphasis placed on where these journalists come from and not just who they are right now. When a newcomer joins the team, an editor named Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), he sits down with Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), and asks questions about the way their newspaper works. Baron is an outsider, and Bradlee lets him know that many of the reporters are Boston-bred, and they consider their newspaper to be like a small, local community paper. The implication here is that the newspaper is one with the community and serves to benefit them while serving alongside them.
Baron wants the spotlight team to consider turning its attention to another case, the sexual abuse allegations of priest John Geoghan. Baron’s interest in the case was piqued when he read that a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), alleged that Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, knew about the abuse and did nothing about it. Spotlight reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) tries to speak to Garabedian who refuses to speak with him until Mike says he’s on the spotlight team, meaning they aren’t fooling around with this story. This is important, as we come to realize, because several other characters, including one of the victims, have had their hopes dashed before when this story has come up only to be brushed aside because people don’t want to read that their priest has been charged with molesting a child. This also establishes the fact that enough people know about this abuse that it’s embarrassing it hasn’t been exposed yet.
The spotlight team begins by interviewing victims who are willing to speak to them as well as a lawyer, Eric Macleish, who has settled many cases with the Catholic church out of court. In these conversations we learn that the priests seem to have targeted children from broken homes, using their influence and authority to get close to the children. At this point in the story, the reporters place the emphasis on the individual priests, namely John Geoghan, rather than on the church as a whole.
Things get more serious when the team is able to confirm 13 priests who have been caught for child molestation. They learn as well that the church settles out of court with the intention of leaving behind no paper trail. In this part of the film, after the confirmation of 13 priests and before we reach the midpoint of the film, Garabedian has a thematically important conversation with Rezendes in which he points out that “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
In the very next scene, Robby (Michael Keaton), the head of the spotlight team, is at a church fundraiser when his friend Jim urges him to back off the church, saying “look around, these are good people,” and immediately demonstrating what Garabedian has just stated. No one wants to believe that the church has been up to this kind of despicable behavior. It’s simply easier to look the other way.
The reporters have already uncovered a list of priests and their locations (as many have been relocated between churches), and they realize that the priests convicted of sexual assault are often put on leave, and the list refers to them as “unassigned” or on “sick leave.” By reverse engineering this list and identifying priests with those labels, the team comes up with a list of 90 priests who may have been identified child molesters. It’s clear how widespread this problem is, so Robby and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) approach Macleish again, demanding a list of priests who they believe he has been covering for. Macleish tells them he sent them a list a decade earlier and they did nothing with it. It’s unclear if he’s lying, but the seed has been planted, and the spotlight reporters begin to assess their own culpability in the ‘turn the other’ away problem with the church.
When the team brings the long list of names to Baron, he tells them to refocus the investigation to go after the institution of the Catholic Church and not just specific priests. They have to prove that this is an epidemic and a systemic problem.
When the September 11th terrorist attacks take place, the story is put on hold. Reporters are temporarily but indefinitely reassigned, and weeks later, Pfeiffer sits down with one of the abused victims we met earlier. He tells her that this always happens, someone picks up the story and then for whatever reason drops it. The victim doesn’t believe anything will change. The reporters, then, are once more forced to take stock of their role in the problem.
Rezendes discovers that the church has removed legal documents from a courthouse. He gets a judge to give him access to the files which should already be public. After talking with Garabedian, Rezendes tells Robby, “he said these fourteen docs are all we need.” Once they unlock these documents, the sexual abuse allegations against the church will be much more concrete and paint a clear picture of the Institutional problem.
They double down on the story, and when they have the whole picture, Robby decides not to publish the story yet. He and Rezendes get into an argument as Rezendes wants to publish immediately, but Robby’s concern is that if they rush the story, they won’t do it right and the Church will be able to bury the story. If they wait, however, they can prove the problem is systemic, and the Church won’t be able to make this go away.
Robby also learns that Macleish did indeed send them a list of 20 names years earlier and they they didn’t do anything with the information. His guilt builds.
As they are about ready to publish the story, Robby tells the rest of the team about the 20 names that he missed or ignored, and he acknowledges his guilt. The story is then published, and they give a phone number which people can call if they have any more information. The phones start ringing off the hook and survivor after survivor comes forward.
So the community prevails in the end, but the end text lets us know that this problem is still around. It’s similar to the ending of All the President’s Men as the reporters create meaningful change, but the film ends with them typing away, still at work. There is always more to be done.
A major theme of this film, in relation to the idea of community, is willful ignorance. The community tries to avoid acknowledging the problem because, they claim, the church does enough good to outweigh the bad. The church is a stabilizing force in the community, and if the church falls, then I suppose the community falls. But as the evidence mounts and the reporters realize they should’ve uncovered this long ago, they see that they themselves have been failing the community. In this way, the church and the paper have an inverse relationship. Where one succeeds, the other fails, but it’s not entirely evident that one is failing.
It’s stated very explicitly that Boston is a town of insiders. People have deep roots in this town. Robby discusses the school he went to (wear there was a priest whose name made it on their “you don’t want to be on this list” list), and Sacha tells Mike how she has stopped going to church, but it’s making her mother furious. These are people with ties, like a giant web, to the city, and there’s a fear that if they sever one of those ties, the web might collapse. As Garabedian points out, it takes an outsider like him or Baron to make a change. So the fear, then, is that people aren’t strong enough to handle the truth. By publishing the story, they do their job, and we see that the community really is strong enough to handle the ugly truth.
I think the characters in this film can only really do their job if they’re appropriately obsessed with the story, which they were, and I think the film depicted that well. It’s not easy to give each character their due, particularly since you have about six important characters who have narrative arcs that need to be established and completed. All the President’s Men only had its two main leads to focus on, but with Spotlight, the focus is balanced amongst the characters. The film seems to lean on John Slattery’s Ben Bradlee Jr. to open the film. He is the first to sit down with new boss, Marty Baron, and to state the premise of Boston as a small town and a small, tight-knit community. As the story builds in the second act, we spend a lot of time with Sacha Pfeiffer and another reporter, Matt Carroll. Then the story spends a lot of time with Mark Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes as he chases down the documents which the church is hiding from the public. Finally, the story shifts focus to Michael Keaton’s Robby as he bears the biggest burden of guilt since he is in charge of his team and is most responsible for not chasing this story earlier. His big question is did he just miss this story or did he ignore it?
The biggest, most climactic moments are the fight between Mike and Robby, and the confrontation between Robby and Jim when Robby needs Jim’s confirmation of the list of priests they’ve uncovered.
So the story hits all the important, dramatic and narrative beats, but there is a kind of handoff between characters. Marty Baron is always just kind of there. He’s the catalyst, encouraging them to pursue this story, and he returns when the team regroups to assess what they’ve learned and where to go next. A good way to identify a new sequence in a film, it seems, is when the protagonist’s goal changes or evolves. Since this film has an ensemble cast, the characters all have to be on the same page during these moments where the team’s goal changes. It’s easy to identify these moments because the spotlight team physically meets up to discuss what they know and what they need to do. The third sequence of the film ends when the team groups up and tells Bradlee about the thirteen names. The fourth sequence ends when the team groups up and Baron tells them to refocus the story to go after the institution rather than individual priests. The fifth sequence ends after the 9/11 attacks the the group being pulled apart to cover other stories. The sixth sequence ends when the team groups up and Robby decides not to publish the story yet. The seventh sequence ends when they go home, with the story headed to press, and the eighth and final sequence ends when the movie ends.
Act 1/Sequence 1: Introduce the world of the story; establish the community and the outsiders (Baron and Garabedian are outsiders) as well as establish the way the spotlight team works.
Sequence 2: Baron wants the spotlight team to focus on the charges against father John Geoghan. This sequence ends when the team has enough information to commit to the story (Geoghan and other priests)
Act 2/Sequence 3: The team focuses on the victims and learns about more priests, 13 to be exact. This sequence ends when they approach Bradlee with 13 names, suggesting the issues is more widespread than just one priest.
Sequence 4: In this section the film the team expands its search and begins to see the bigger picture, that this isn’t just about a few “bad apples” but rather about the entire institution and that the church has covered up its paper trail (they know about this). Baron refocuses the story to go after the entire church, not just the individual priests. This final moment is the midpoint as the story pivots. Now the characters’ goals are not the priests but rather then entire organization. It heightens the drama and the stakes and refocuses the plot.
Sequence 5: The story gains momentum until the 9/11 attacks put the story on hold. By giving up the story, even just temporarily, the team is forced to examine their responsibility to expose the truth, no matter how ugly it is.
Sequence 6: In this sequence, the team refocuses on their story once they are faced with their own guilt and once Mike Rezendes talks to Garabedian and realizes the church has removed public documents from a courthouse (demonstrates their power). This sequence ends with Robby refusing to publish the story yet as they still need to confirm the story with someone within the church (his friend Jim). Mike Rezendes and Robby fight, and this represents the “dark night of the soul” when it seems like the story may not work, at least in Mike’s eyes. He has done all he can, and the story won’t yet be published.
Act 3/Sequence 7: The team forms a new gameplan, they get access (through a lawsuit) to important documents which verify everything they’ve learned. This information will essentially put the nail in the coffin. Robby accepts his mistakes in the past and pushes on. He gets the confirmation from his friend Jim (who points out that Robby never did anything before about this problem), and they publish the story.
Sequence 8: In the final sequence we wrap everything up: the story is published and the phones start ringing.