Review: 'Spotlight' Explores the Sins of the Fathers

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in the new film “Spotlight.” Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

Update | In the summer of 1982, a woman from Dorchester, Massachusetts, named Margaret Gallant wrote a letter to Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, then archbishop of Boston. In the letter, Gallant said that seven of her nephews and grandnephews had been abused by a local priest, John J. Geoghan. "It embarrasses me that the church is so negligent," she wrote. Medeiros did not appear especially concerned for the welfare of the children. "To be sure, we cannot accept sin, but we know well that we must love the sinner and pray for him," the cardinal wrote back.

This is how it always went with Geoghan, whose proclivities were well known by the 1980s. Back in 1954, at the Cardinal O'Connell Seminary, he was singled out for his "very pronounced immaturity." At his first priestly posting, at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Saugus, Massachusetts, he was known to wrestle with boys in his private chambers.

As Geoghan moved from parish to parish throughout his career, he continued to prey on boys, almost always from poor families where an overworked mother was happy to have a little help from the parish priest. His abuse would inevitably attract the attention of the archdiocese. The prelates would force him into psychiatric care at a church-controlled treatment center, after which he'd return to pastoral care. In three and a half decades of wearing the cassock, Geoghan sexually assaulted 130 children.

Geoghan was defrocked in 1998; by the start of 2001, he faced 84 separate civil suits. It was at this time that he came under the attention of an investigative unit at The Boston Globe known as Spotlight, composed of three journalists and one editor, all lapsed Catholics themselves. The Globe reporters grasped that while Geoghan's case was horrific, it was actually not remarkable: The Boston archdiocese had long been aware that there were dozens of serial rapists disguised in priestly vestments. It knew their names, their compulsions and their crimes. It sent them to its own ineffectual doctors, then to new parishes that were exactly like the old parishes. Sometimes, if the victims lawyered up, the church paid them hush money. But as grown men continued to prey on helpless children, the Church refused to collectively partake in the sacrament of confession. Silence became the highest virtue.

Silence became impossible to maintain as the Globe published, in 2002, some 600 stories on allegations of sexual abuse by 249 clergy in the Boston archdiocese. The exposé felled Cardinal Bernard F. Law, then the archbishop of Boston; earned the Spotlight team a public service Pulitzer Prize in 2003; and ushered in a period of public scrutiny from which the Church had long thought itself exempt. That's no longer the case. In 2012, Monsignor William J. Lynn of Philadelphia became the first Church official to go to prison for shuffling around pedophile priests instead of reporting them to authorities. That same year, in Kansas City, Missouri, Bishop Robert W. Finn was also convicted of failing to report, the first bishop to earn that ignominious distinction. And when Pope Francis visited the United States this September, he met with victims of sexual abuse. "One priest abusing a minor is reason enough to move the Church's whole structure," he told them.

Now comes Spotlight, a superb film directed Thomas J. McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton as Walter V. Robinson, the "player-coach" of the Spotlight team, as he calls himself. His main writer is Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, who gives a master class in how to broadcast anguish with a single twitch of the lip. Liev Schreiber is Martin Baron, The Boston Globe's new editor, the first Jew to top the masthead of a paper 53 percent of whose subscribers were Catholic, according to the film. (Baron's religion, and bachelorhood, clearly discomfit one of the Catholic city fathers who populate this film.)

For a film about the misdeeds of the Catholic Church, Spotlight spends almost no time in the houses of the holy—I don't think there are more than three scenes inside a church. Instead, this is a film set almost entirely amidst the cubicles of a modern-day newsroom, with the occasional courthouse document library. The movie is set in 2002, which means the desktop computers are bulky, the cellphones flip open, and telephones frequently ring. Sometimes, the journalists meet their subjects in person and write down, on paper, what those subjects have to say. Nobody writes hot takes or throws up blog posts.

McCarthy is a disciple of sorts of David Simon, having played an unscrupulous journalist in the fifth season of The Wire. Like Simon at his very best, McCarthy succeeds at turning paperwork maneuverings into high drama. At one point, the screen fills with the cells of an Excel spreadsheet. This should be cinematic suicide, but it is instead thrilling: The spreadsheet is a chronicle of how the Church moved priests from one parish to another, sometimes removing them for vague reasons like "sick leave." The purely legal question of whether the Church has to turn over documents relating to pedophile priests—it did, a judge would eventually rule, in a huge victory for the Globe—is rendered more thrilling than the prospect of a nuclear weapon in Copley Square.

If the church is absent from Spotlight, then so are priests. Except for one haunting moment in which the Reverend Ronald H. Paquin gently explains to Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams, the only significant female character) that his abuse of children wasn't really rape, and another scene in which Cardinal Law presents the clearly non-Catholic Baron with the catechism, there are almost no holy men in the movie. Its heroes are the journalists, working-class guys who treat journalism like a trade for the masses, not some pious craft reserved for graduate students who deem themselves textual storytellers.

Keaton famously played a city editor in The Paper, a 1994 comedy by Ron Howard about a tabloid newspaper that seemed to borrow the crusading spirit of New York's Daily News and the machismo of the New York Post. In different ways, the two films romanticize journalism, largely through the depiction of how unglamorous and draining the pursuit of truth can be. In the earlier movie, Keaton was charmingly ridiculous in the way that New Yorkers can be; here, he is sinewy and pained, resisting calls from Boston's Irish-Catholic elite to pull back on the Spotlight investigation.

Increasingly, he is shown to be driven by that great impulse of Jews and Catholics alike: guilt. The accusations against pedophile priests had been appearing in the Globe for decades, but only as rare incidents of abuse meriting a few buried column inches, not a widespread cancer demanding excision. "We had all the pieces," he says in a newsroom meeting. "Why didn't we get it sooner?" Nobody dares answer him.

The heart of the Spotlight team is Rezendes, a middle-aged reporter with a bowl haircut, and with no use for elites of any persuasion. McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer wisely abstain from burdening Rezendes's character with the cliché of the journalist as righteous iconoclast. In the tradition of working-class Irish Boston, he is just a guy doing his job. He is never more or less than decent.

Ruffalo, as Rezendes, is also doing his job, and doing it spectacularly. He was arresting in last year's Foxcatcher, for which he should have won the Supporting Actor Oscar. The role of Rezendes limits his physicality—there are only so many ways to work a phone—but also somehow accentuates the intensity that sings through his muscles. In a sea of dadbods and pantsuits, he is a force apart, hunched and brooding, tense even as he boils hot dogs in his sparse apartment. As he lumbers into a lawyer's office or scribbles at his desk, you feel the tension radiate from his body. When he listens as an utterly ruined young man tells his story of abuse by Geoghan, anger moves across his face like a hurricane.

Spotlight subtly highlights similarities between the paper and the Church. Both trace their authority to the primacy of the word; both offer uplift to the common man, acting as his paternalistic confessor and instructor. Both do their best work on Sundays too. The E.W. Scripps Company, which owns many newspapers around the nation, has a motto that could easily grace a church's stained glass window: "Give light and the people will find their own way." Over tea in his sumptuous chambers, Law tells Baron, the new Globe editor, that the city thrives when the Globe and the Church work together. To him, their mission is one and the same.

In the years since the Geoghan exposé, both the Globe and the Catholic Church have seen declining membership. When Baron arrived at the Globe, its circulation was 467,000; when he left in 2012, it was about 246,000, with print becoming increasingly a relic in the intervening decade. Meanwhile, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that the "percentage of U.S. Catholics who consider themselves 'strong' members of the Roman Catholic Church has never been lower than it was in 2012," with only 27 percent of American Catholics identifying themselves as acute adherents of the faith.

The relentless trend toward apostasy cannot be attributed to the sex abuse case alone, though it's hard to think of a more crippling blow to the sanctity of the Church. At its heart, Spotlight is an argument against deference to authority, which informs so much great journalism. During one scene, Pfeiffer attends church with her pious grandmother. "Knowledge is one thing," the priest counsels. "But faith—faith is another." The priest is confident that faith will triumph, but as Pfeiffer and her colleagues showed, even in Boston piety has its limits.

At the end of the film, a screen fills with the names of places that have dealt with sexual abuse by priests. Then the names of more places appear, and then more. Fort Worth, Santa Rosa, Buenos Aires, Nairobi. You want it to stop, but it just keeps going.

Correction: This article originally used the incorrect middle initial for Martin Baron.

This article has been updated to clarify a scene in which aspects of Baron's personal life discomfited a church official.