Authenticity In Telling The 'Spotlight' Story
In January of 2016, Director Tim McCarthy released a film following the 2001 The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team investigative story of a cover-up of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. The small team was comprised of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). Former editor of The Boston Globe and current editor of The Washington Post, Marty Baron assigned the team to follow up on allegations against John Geoghan, a priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. Over a year since the movie’s release date, The Boston Globe has commented on the making of the film and the reality McCarthy portrayed: “Covering a half-year period from mid-2001 through the beginning of 2002, the movie follows the reporters and their editors with a minimum of melodramatic window dressing” (Burr). The layout of the film goes beyond just covering the Church’s scandal and umbrella’s the journalist’s stories of uncovering this news as well as uncovering how the Boston community assisted this perpetual cover up.
The film is a drama that follows the traditional three act structure with narrative storytelling instead of a documentary layout - which may use similar techniques but typically does not have actors. In 2009 producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, who were attracted to real-life stories, decided to make a film not just about the scandal itself but about the journalists as well. The story evolved once director Tim McCarthy and writer Josh Singer joined the team. Demonstrating their own investigative skills, the crew “began conducting dozens of interviews with the reporters, their editors, and anyone who was affiliated with the coverage” (Goldstein).
Several articles published by The Boston Globe articulate several aspects of the film and it’s meaning to the paper and the Boston community. Reporter Meredith Goldstein said, “Ruffalo, who plays Rezendes in the film and shadowed him in the Globe newsroom to prepare for the role, said the themes are what made the script so special. He said the story shows how locals addressed the truth once it was brought to light”. Similarly, a few months prior to the film’s release, Heather Ciras reported on “The real people behind the ‘Spotlight’ characters”. Ciras begins with, “In 2003, the members of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports that uncovered the systemic cover-up of child abuse by the Catholic Church in Boston” (Ciras) and follows with a list of various Globe reporters featured in the film as well as the actors who play them. In Ty Burr’s article, “Superb ‘Spotlight’ Tells the Story of Journalists Who Investigated Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal”, regards that while “it has been praised by many people, almost all of them journalists” (Burr), it is because “it just lets [journalists] do their jobs, as tedious and critical as those are, with a realism that grips an audience almost in spite of itself” (Burr). According to Burr, the movie ‘Spotlight’ really highlights the process of journalism, particularly investigative reporting, and the drama entangled in news gathering. He also makes sure to warn his readers that while the film is not a fast-paced action film, “ The performances are terribly moving; the details remain tough sledding” (Burr).
However, not once does the movie shy away from the horrendous scandal the Spotlight team uncovered in 2001. The investigation began a few months before 9/11, but the journalists had to postpone their investigations and interviews due to one of the greatest tragedies in modern American history. With two of the four planes coming out of Logan International Airport, the event personally affected many of those in the Boston community. As a scene in the movie shows a victim meeting with reporter Pfeiffer, “Look I get it, no one wants to read a story about kids getting raped by priests. Especially now. But you asked a lot of people to relive some very painful experiences and you just disappear… It’s been six weeks since 9/11…doing the same thing you guys did last time… You’re dropping us” (McCarthy).
The sitdown takes place in a casual cafe, presumably in the city, and shows the harsh reality of how the Boston community was hurting during the fall and winter of 2001, as was the rest of the nation. The journalists involved in this story had to make sure they went through all the details in order to tell the story “right” as Pfeiffer’s character says to the victim, Phil. At issue, initially, is whether the Globe can successfully petition the Massachusetts courts to release sealed documents pertaining to the case of the Rev. John Geoghan, accused of molesting dozens of boys over the years. Working with lawyers and city officials as well as numerous victims, the Spotlight reporters had quite the task on their hands. But never veered off the importance of this story. As shown in the articles themselves, The Boston Globe uncovered how the church allowed these abuses to continue through the archdiocese shuttling these priests from parish to parish. Releasing a series of articles from the beginning to the end of 2002, the Spotlight team uncovered hundreds of cases just within the Boston community. The film’s final credits go on to list other cities and countries around the world with similar numbers of cases.
Finally, the biggest difficulty the journalists faced was, not only the Church’s shuffling of these priests to avoid revealing the scandal, but the community (to include The Boston Globe) for assisting in the coverups of these abuse stories. As Burr says, “Behind that disbelief, the movie observes, is a vast civic wall of deference and complacency — an inculcated, generations-old bowing down before the power of spiritual and institutional authority” (Burr). The Spotlight team, mid investigation, finds out that the lawyer they are utilizing as a primary source helped defend all of the original cases they were investigating. A cottage industry had developed among these cases with lawyers of the accused (the Church) and lawyers of the victims meeting in private court rooms, discussing monetary values for the victims silence against the priests, the church, and more importantly, their abuse. “We got two stories here,” Keaton’s character says to a lawyer who is reluctant to give them any specifics on the cases. “We got a story about degenerate clergy, and we got a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry” (McCarthy).
Similarly, another lawyer, had sent a list of names of all the victims a few years prior to the 2001 investigation. Appalled by their own paper’s lack of follow up, another big impact the Spotlight team made was to point out that the Boston community had a lot to do with the systematic cover up. A motif covered throughout the movie is not just about the Church - “you want to sue the Catholic church?” (McCarthy) is a question asked time and time again at the beginning of the investigation. However, as the story unfolds and the deeper the investigative team gets, it is pushed that they are trying to take down the entire system. Goldstein brushes on this topic in her article regarding the movie in relation to the Boston community “became complicit — from law enforcement to parents of victims to the newspaper itself. The question was no longer why it took 34 years to remove Geoghan from his post. It was: Why did so many people — including The Boston Globe, which covered these abuse cases piecemeal — not notice the greater trend and question how much the Catholic Church knew about the systemic problem?” (Goldstein).
The judgement calls reporters maker day in and day out can lead to some hasty decisions that are sometimes right but also sometimes wrong. The film portrays just how wrong these reporters and the Globe had been in the past with ignoring these victims and their stories.
The primary message of the film is obviously to tell this story of The Globe uncovering this scandal in 2001. However, once the layers begin to unravel, McCarthy himself said that “Part of the occupational hazard of being a reporter is, you just miss things. Things fall through the cracks. A lot of things are coming at you and you make judgment calls. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong” (Goldstein). The difficulty of these reporters not only gathering and compiling the information, the legal documents, and the anecdotes of the victims was also met with challenges of admitting that the paper was wrong and that the community was wrong on top of the church being wrong. This critical analysis of self-evaluation on the individual and on the group level was a beautiful premise incorporated in McCarthy’s film that was not necessarily covered in the original 2001 articles themselves. The film and the actors are extremely successful in muting the drama or the Hollywood gloss of the Spotlight’s team, “There are no flashbacks, no office romances, mere glimpses of the reporters’ spouses and homes” (Burr). The film authentically tells the impactful truth of these 2001 abuse coverups, intensely affecting a community but ultimately was a story that needed to be unveiled.