Shoe Leather: On “Spotlight”

By Charles TaylorDecember 5, 2015

Shoe Leather: On “Spotlight”

IT’S A MOMENT we’ve seen dozens of times: the incorruptible newcomer summoned to an audience with the local heavy. On the surface, it’s a friendly meeting. The big shot is affable, welcoming. He offers to help the newcomer with anything he might need. Right below the surface, he’s issuing a warning: there’s a certain way things are done in this town, and if you’re smart, you won’t get in the way. Whether the scene is played out between a sheriff and a cattle baron, a crusading DA and a power broker who holds himself above the law, or an honest cop confronting a veteran on the take, we understand that the scene defines the stakes the hero is playing for, as well as the son of a bitch he’s going to have to go up against. It’s a measure of how uncompromised Spotlight is, then, that in this case, the s.o.b. is the head of the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law. 

Spotlight is about what happened when, in 2001, the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron — the man called in for that sit-down with Cardinal Law (played as a pious old ward heeler by Len Cariou) — pushed the paper’s investigative reporting unit, the Spotlight team, to look into why a local priest who had molested more than 130 boys had been shuffled from parish to parish instead of turned over to the cops. What that four-person team uncovered was not a “few bad apples,” the term the Church and their defenders used to classify pedophile priests, but documentation that nearly 100 Boston-area priests had molested children and that in most of the cases, their superiors in the Archdiocese had known. The Spotlight team’s report, which ran in January 2002, won the Globe a Pulitzer Prize and effectively ended the career of Bernard Law, who resigned in 2002.

At least in America. Law was given a cushy Vatican appointment and with that, of course, the diplomatic status that would keep him from being extradited back to the States. But the effect of the Spotlight team’s work went far beyond Law. By shattering the few bad apples scenario, the Spotlight reporters — Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — identified child sexual abuse not as an aberration but an accepted practice within the Church, given no more thought than the way old-time pols regard the corruption within their ranks. If that sounds like an exaggeration, Spotlight ends with a list of cities in which child sexual abuse scandals have been uncovered in the Catholic Church. Beginning with the US and then moving to the rest of the world, the list takes up four screens of small triple-column type.

In essence, the director, Tom McCarthy, and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer, treat the Boston Archdiocese, and by extension the Roman Catholic Church, as a criminal enterprise. That’s not didacticism. It’s common sense. Spotlight announces its intentions in the opening scene, set in a Boston neighborhood police station, where John Geoghan, a local priest, has been brought in for questioning after a parent’s complaint. When a rookie cop asks a vet what will happen when the charges are read at the arraignment, the vet answers, “What arraignment?” He’s seen this before. He knows Keoghan will walk. The moment that follows expands the scope of the corruption when an assistant DA arrives and a bishop, called in to mollify the mother, tells him, “I’ll be with you in just a moment.” This is a town where the law, from the cops to the prosecutors, defer to the Catholic Church. 

There’s never a scene in Spotlight, never a line where we have to listen to one of the heroes — and the reporters are the movie’s heroes — deliver some saphead fairness speech about all the good the Church does and how we shouldn’t let these revelations tarnish the entire institution. Spotlight shows us how the Church cooked official documents so that pedophile priests sent to “treatment centers” were said to be on “sick leave.” It reveals how public documents of court proceedings were, with the collusion of judges, taken out of public files. (The Globe successfully sued to get some released.) It shows us the local lawyers, played with a mixture of slickness and self-disgust by Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan, who made a nice pile representing victims of abuse and taking a percentage of the settlement the Church paid to keep the cases from coming to trial. And it tells us about the threats and legal opposition faced by one lawyer who refused to settle. He’s played by Stanley Tucci, in a sharp and ultimately melancholy caricature of a tough, driven counselor. (When you see Tucci sipping tentatively at some soup, you think this man has had to develop a cast-iron stomach after the predatory cruelties he’s heard about.)

In one remarkable scene, McAdams’s Pfeiffer rings the doorbell of a mild, elfin ex-priest (Richard O’Rourke) who readily admits that he molested children, but patiently explains to Pfeiffer that he didn’t get any pleasure out of it. And of course, there are the victims themselves, whose adult lives have been disfigured by their childhood abuse. Two of them are played indelibly here by Jimmy LeBlanc, as a working-class guy ashamed that his kids might find out, and by Michael Cyril Creighton, as a gay man whose abuse was especially cruel —an encounter that both confirmed his sexuality and left him feeling even more confused and guilty than he felt before. And we see how devastating the revelations are to the faithful. In one of the movie’s quietest and most affecting scenes, Pfeiffer’s grandmother sits at the kitchen table, the Globe with the Spotlight report spread out before her, and asks her granddaughter for a glass of water after letting out a soft little sigh that sounds as if a sliver of her soul were escaping her body.

For writer-director McCarthy and his co-writer Singer, Spotlight is a leap in terms of scale and depth. McCarthy’s previous films, among them The Station Agent and The Visitor, have been small, character-driven dramas that invariably win praise but also, from a certain type of cineaste, are dismissed as quaint and unexciting. (“Sundance movies” is the favored pejorative.) And it just might be that the initial praise for Spotlight will give way to faint praise that it’s “conventional.” (I’ve already read one clueless review that chastises it for its “lack of scope and ambition,” though how a film about an investigation that opened a worldwide dam of disclosure can be characterized that way, I don’t know.) Avoiding the obvious — that nowadays there’s nothing conventional about a superbly crafted mainstream movie for adults — Spotlight does what it does so deftly that all it does is not at first apparent. Spotlight joins the ranks of the great American muckraking pictures, from I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang to On the Waterfront, All the President’s Men, and The Border. In form, it’s a reaffirmation of the possibilities of good clean mainstream craftsmanship, and in content it’s a full-throated huzzah for the shoe-leather style of journalism that digital culture and the economic chaos it’s wrought in the newspaper business has done so much to obliterate.

Apart from shots of the reporters quickly checking a fact and Ruffalo’s Rezendes synthesizing their accumulated information into the final story, we don’t see the reporters sitting at a computer. We see them walking Boston’s working-class Irish neighborhoods, ringing doorbells and often being angrily told to go away, hanging out in office waiting rooms while the officials they’ve come to talk to try to avoid them, digging through archives that look as if they haven’t been touched in years, trying to ferret out information during a golf game or over a drink at some official function. These scenes and montages are thrilling. We know what the reporters are going to uncover. The excitement of Spotlight, like the excitement of All the President’s Men, lies in watching how they go about it, the mixture of instinct and brains and sheer dumb luck that it takes to break a story, plus the reporters’ own mingling of fear and thrill when they realize the scope of that story.


In Spotlight, there isn’t a moment, a line of dialogue, or a setting that doesn’t feel authentic or lived in. Actors playing characters who know their beat intimately move with a certain confidence, and you see that in the four Spotlight reporters. This is very much an ensemble piece, but there’s also good acting everywhere you look. And despite being an ensemble piece, Michael Keaton gets to shine here in a way he didn’t as the lead in Birdman, where he played second fiddle to Iñárritu’s claptrap conception. You can see vestiges of the manic, slightly deranged spark that was always in Keaton’s eye as a young comic actor, except that here it’s slightly hooded. Keaton’s Robby has the mixture of bluntness and caginess a reporter needs. Several times we watch Robby listen, nodding, to some sharpster’s justification, only to respond with a statement that calls out the bullshit and clears the air. It’s the work of an actor who knows how to command a scene and is generous enough to yield to those acting with him. 

His straightforward quality works in contrast to the eccentricity Mark Ruffalo brings to his performance as Mike Rezendes. The colleague I saw the film with said to me, “He looks like a boxer,” and watching Ruffalo walk, hunched over and shuffling slightly to the side, noting the split-second extra his responses seem to need, you could think him a punch-drunk one. Except that Rezendes is also hopped up on the story. When you see him alone in the crummy apartment he’s renting while separated from his wife, you can’t trust his claim that they will work things out. You get the feeling there is nothing for Rezendes beyond reporting. The scene where he confronts Robby over a delay in the publication of the exposé, yelling at him that he’s afraid it’s the paper’s way of ditching it, is as much of a release for the audience, who is, by then, desperate to see justice served, as it is a release of the nervous energy Ruffalo has brought to the role. It’s a fantastic performance.

Movies often link up with each other in unexpected ways. The parallels here to All the President’s Men are obvious. But there’s another, ironic connection. The Globe’s Deputy Managing Editor for Projects is Ben Bradlee, Jr., son of the Washington Post editor. He’s played in Spotlight by John Slattery, and when you watch Bradlee Jr. dismiss the head of a survivor’s group, who contends that child sexual abuse is endemic to the Church and that the cover-up extends all the way to the Vatican, you can’t help but recall the moment in All the President’s Men when Jason Robards, as Bradlee, Sr., listens to one of his editors tell him that he doesn’t believe the Watergate story because it makes no sense for Nixon to do such a thing.

If Spotlight celebrates reporters, it’s also tough on them, showing how the Globe team essentially had to be prodded into being reporters, and specifically how the paper had been content not to probe too deeply into the Church sex abuse scandals that had periodically popped up in Boston. Liev Schreiber, in a performance so thoroughly lived in that it will likely be underrated as “good,” plays Marty Baron as a placid enigma, a man who seems to have no life outside of the work that quietly consumes him. He unsettles Robby, who is afraid of cuts to the Spotlight staff and who can’t get a read on this new guy. Baron had come to the paper from The New York Times and the Miami Herald (he’s currently the editor of The Washington Post) and the movie makes it clear that it took an outsider to get this investigation started. In his first meeting with the Globe editorial staff, Baron is told that Cardinal Law has managed to get crucial papers in one of the abuse scandals sealed. Baron sets off a little bomb in the room by calmly saying that the Globe will sue to unseal them. “Sue the Catholic Church?” he is asked in wonder. The flap Baron causes by taking on the Church has only partly to do with his challenging of such an entrenched power, one so intimately connected with the town’s power structure. It has to do with the scale of the story he envisions, a scale he keeps pushing his reporters to realize. It’s not enough for Baron to find that one pedophile priest was shuffled around. He suspects that the story is bigger, and to the reporters who are doing the agonizing work of sitting down to press deeply damaged people for details of their abuse — reporters who are also worried the rival Boston Herald might get wind of their investigation and scoop them — Baron’s insistence on going deeper makes them worry that the voices of the victims might play second fiddle to the narrative of institutional corruption.


Spotlight is canny enough to see something more than just an editor’s vision at work in the way Baron pushed his investigative team, though it might not read to audiences who haven’t spent time in Boston. To those of us who have, the accuracy with which Spotlight understands the place is devastating. It’s meant to be an affectionate description of Boston when Cardinal Law tells Baron that in many ways Boston is a small town. What Law is inadvertently describing, and it’s part of the reluctance Baron confronts in his staff, is the ingrained psychology of a town that likes to think of itself as a world-class city but operates like a province. Spend any time there and you will hear the locals tell you that Boston is just a more livable version of New York. Spend a lot of time there and you will hear, behind those claims, the self-doubt of a town that suspects it’s second rate. Say any of this to outsiders and you’ll be asked, “But what about the colleges, the hospitals and research facilities? What about liberal Boston, the capital of ‘Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts?’”

And when you’re faced with these questions, you have to explain that Boston is probably the most racially segregated city in the Northeast; and that the racial violence during the busing turmoil of the 1970s mimicked the worst aspects of the South during the Civil Rights years (and produced, in its city government, a cadre of demagogues who could have stood comparison with any segregationist yahoos); and that the veneer of WASP liberalism has never dispelled the clannishness of Southie, the city’s Irish enclave. Earlier Globe investigations into the Church had been seen as a WASP editorship indulging in anti-Catholic prejudice. Implicit in Spotlight is that this new investigation is being pushed by a Jew, a subject hinted at when one of the Church’s shills tells Robby that Baron doesn’t care about Boston, but is just there to make his name and move on. In other words, he’s a climber, and we all know who they are.

The beauty of Spotlight is watching this team of reporters push past their provincialism, defy the town’s power structure and the unwritten rules about who could and couldn’t be held to account. The irony is that they produce world-class journalism by zeroing in on Boston’s insularity, the mindset that, in all things from politics to culture to media, impedes that town. The poet Jack Spicer, who spent unhappy years there, once wrote, “Poetry hates Boston.” There is no poetry in Spotlight. But there’s something just as affecting in the sight of the male reporters in their pleated chinos and pressed button-down dress shirts worn without ties and with the sleeves rolled up; in the sight of McAdams’s Sacha Pfeiffer in her business casual attire, almost all of it too big on her frame, that looks as if she picked it out during 15 minutes at Loehmann’s; in every oddball gesture Mark Ruffalo makes; in the sight of all of them frustrated and excited and disgusted and, finally, determined. No poetry here, but the grace that comes from doggedness.


Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Nation, Dissent, and other publications.

LARB Contributor

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.


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