Spotlight, a Best Picture Grammy nominee, tells the devastating but true story of the Boston Globe Spotlight team that broke the story in 2002 of the Catholic Church’s cover up of priests sexually abusing children. Here’s the story this team of journalists explored: a prominent leader in the Catholic Church knowingly shuffles around sexually abusive priests from parish to parish for decades. Meanwhile, a cottage industry arises wherein lawyers get fat paychecks as the Catholic Church spends an egregious amount of money quietly settling lawsuits from victims outside of court and protecting itself from the public eye through confidentiality agreements. This is the kind of breakout story that wins journalists public accolades and awards, increases readership, and expands the subscriber base. Yet this team, at least as the film portrays them, did not think about the story in the terms I described above. No one mentions personal fame as a motivation; no one gets giddy with the thought of bringing down the Church; no one fantasizes about doubling the subscriber base. The sense we get as viewers is that the team truly cared about the city of Boston and the people of Boston, so they knew this was a story that needed to be told.
It is a profoundly mature film: there are no sordid scenes and even the testimony of adult survivors is relatively restrained and brief. Rather than dwell on the horrific details of the crimes, the film prefers to show us the grown men weeping onscreen, forcing us to reflect on the long-term effects of these crimes and mourn the tragedy of broken lives and lost faith.
That lamenting of lost faith was a welcome surprise for me. It would have been easy for the film to demonize religion, but it does not. And while the film is, in some ways, shaped as a narrative of the ragtag local paper against the “big, bad Catholic Church,” the film is carefully nuanced in divorcing the Catholic religion from the human institution of the Church and to place the blame on the latter rather than the former. At one point, Robby, a reporter on the Spotlight team, reflects that, having been a lapsed Catholic (it’s Boston–many people grew up Catholic), he had secretly thought that one day he might return to the Church, but now, after working on this story, he can’t see himself returning–and so he grieves. A little while later in the film, Robby stands just inside the door of a church during a Christmas service where the children of the parish are gathered in the front to sing Silent Night, and Robby cries; I cried with him.
I think Spotlight is the most compelling depiction of good journalism that I have ever seen in a film. When I say good, I do not refer just to the quality of the writing or the strong dedication to confirming sources; I refer also to the ethical nature of the reporting itself and also the ethical compassion of the team of writers.
Likewise, Spotlight, as a film, is decidedly compassionate. Rather than smearing the Church or attacking religion, the film chooses to explore a pivotal moment in our American consciousness with intelligence and grace, thereby shining a light on the darkness of evil and the tragedy of stolen faith. I left the theater feeling sorrowful but also grateful that this story has been told and told well.