Before director and co-writer Tom McCarthy made the movie Spotlight, he sought out his devout Catholic parents. Like many, they were angrily affected by the pedophilic scandal in the Catholic church. His parents’ affirmation attested McCarthy’s endeavor to translate this egregious story into a film. Spotlight, based on events that spanned more than a quarter century, is not an expose of the Catholic church but a studied narrative of human depravity. Whether institutions – the Boston diocese and the Boston Globe or individuals – abusive priests, Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Globe’s Walter Robinson, the movie indicts them all as our surrogates for depraved complicity in the face of evil. When evil in any form is perpetrated, who is ultimately responsible? The perpetrators or those with opportunity to do something but choose to do little as well.
In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Boston Globe’s new editor encourages Walter (Robby) Robinson (Michael Keaton) and “Spotlight”, his small band of investigative reporters, to look into the role of the Catholic church in it priests’ sexual abuses. Both Robinson and his team resisted. Being Catholics, devout, lapsed or otherwise, not one wants to dig for dirt in the church. Each has personal reasons not to pursue the story. Besides, majority of Globe’s readership is Catholics and who cares to ruffle their fealty. In time, Baron, who is Jewish, convinces “Spotlight” to take up the scandal.
Looking back when the news first surfaced, Robinson wonders out loud, “Why didn’t I do more” then? He has his personal reasons. At the end of the day, he often rubs elbows with church officials over drinks and in weekends he chases golf balls with the church’s top lawyer. In time, the team (Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) is deep in an expanding investigative story. As the number of priests and victim grows, it is apparent that there is a systemic cover-up by the church.
Spotlight is a good movie, morally and artistically. Morally speaking, the Christian doctrine of human depravity is the subtext of this gripping detective story. Depraved indifference to evil threads through every scene. Mea Culpa applies to the church hierarchy as well as to those at the Globe. Artistic wise, without exploitation or sentimentality, it is good story well told. It refuses to demonize the church nor exalt the Boston Globe. Rather than broad brushing the players in black and white, each is smudged with shades of human gray.
The movie is also a validation of vocation. “What took you so long?” ask several victims again and again. But at the end, the reporters’ procrastination is atoned by their professionalism. With characteristic competence, the reporters, with a deep sense of calling, follow every lead doggedly. And yet they are not heroes the way society trivializes heroism. In earnest the team confesses that they are only doing their job. Implicit in vocation – when something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
Spotlight is not a feel good movie in that good wins at the end. It is a good movie with sobering studies of human complicity and human calling. When given an opportunity for good, we may choose to do nothing or we may respond to our calling to do something and find validation. It may not be a feel good movie, and yet I feel better after watching it.