Review: Spotlight (2015 movie)

In 2001 investigative reporters working for The Boston Globe uncovered evidence that the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was moving priests around to conceal rather than adequately address their sexual abuse of minors, a problem the reporters themselves had trouble believing was a large as it proved to be.

When the newspaper finally published a series of articles on the subject in early 2002 it led to other investigations around the United States and in other countries that found many similar cases and worse, most notably in Ireland.

This film dramatizes how the Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative unit gradually discovered the scale of the problem over the course of more than a year. In the main, cast members portray real people, and in most cases the actors worked with the persons they were portraying and even tried to incorporate their physical mannerisms and manner of speaking into the performances. Some of the reporters spent time on set, and The Boston Globe itself was heavily involved in advising the production, so the sets are closely modeled on the newspaper’s real offices and even the credits use the typeface (Miller) that’s the main one used in the Globe.

The close cooperation makes for greater accuracy but also introduces an obvious potential bias. Despite that, the film depicts the reporters and editors not as heroic but as initially far too slow to follow up on leads and as motivated as much by a desire for a blockbuster story as by some abstract journalistic duty. The film should have given more credit to The National Catholic Reporter, which had been covering abuse in the church for 17 years by the time the Globe got around to it. The closest this comes to a mention in Spotlight is when one of the victims asks a Globe reporter if he has read “the book by Jason Berry,” a journalist at The National Catholic Reporter who wrote a lot about the problem.

Whatever its strengths and flaws as a quasi-documentary, Spotlight is an excellent movie that earned multiple awards. Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, et al have been justly praised for their acting, and almost all reviews have been positive, including from Roman Catholic critics. Writing in The National Catholic Reporter Father Peter Daly called Spotlight “a very good movie. It might win the Oscar for best screenplay.” (Which it did, and for best picture as well.) He wrote,

Michael Keaton leads an ensemble cast that is entirely believable. They capture the atmosphere of the newsroom and the atmosphere of the Catholic church in Boston. The real Spotlight team spent more than a year uncovering the child abuse scandal. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their series and they touched off similar investigations worldwide. It has been a scandal that continues to convulse the church.

As a parish priest I found it painful to watch. I was ashamed.

I went to see the movie alone. When the movie was over I sat in stunned silence in the theater and waited for everyone else to leave. I did not want to have to talk. Above all I did not want to run into any parishioners. Our church behaved horribly.

Every seminarian should see this movie. The USCCB [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] should spend an evening watching it together and discussing it. The only disinfectant that will really lead to cleansing is the bright light of truth. The Archdiocese of Boston would never have reformed without the Globe stories.

(For more about the movie from The National Catholic Reporter, see this link.)


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