On January 6, 2002, waking the nation after the holidays, the first Boston Globe story dropped: “Church allowed abuse by priest for years.” The Globe’s Spotlight team—a crew of investigative reporters who spend months digging into a single story—launched their coverage with one particular priest, John J. Geoghan, who abused more than 130 children. “Almost always, his victims were grammar school boys”—and the story continues by interviewing one of his victims and depicting, very frankly, how he was molested.
The saga of abuse in the Catholic Church is familiar now thanks, in large part, to the Spotlight team’s perseverance, with follow-up stories published throughout 2002. As written by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, the new movie Spotlight hits hard because we remember when these events played out in national news. Much like this year’s Black Mass, Spotlight uncovers the extent of corruption that an entire city managed to keep silent, behind closed doors, for decades.
McCarthy’s movie doesn’t shy away from the moral considerations these reporters face: How to get the story before the Boston Herald does. When a story takes a backseat to a national emergency (here, September 11, 2001). If it’s necessary to make public right away when many questions still remain. The January 6 article admits as much. Many pastors, church officials, and lawyers refused to comment, and the Globe dutifully records these silent voices.
The cast fits into their roles like a repertory ensemble, finding humor and drama in the smallest of interactions. Rachel McAdams gets a great scene when she as Sacha Pfeiffer confronts a priest at his home and is surprised he openly confesses to molestation. McAdams is clearly flustered by his willing admission—one of several breakthroughs on the investigation—but keeps a calm exterior as she hastily takes notes. An addled Mark Ruffalo is great, as well, so invested in his work it affects his physicality; he bears the weight of the investigation in his tightly wound frame. Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup—all excellent.
Whatever the outcome of awards season, it will be hard to find a better screenplay this year. McCarthy and Singer trust their story, a ripped-from-the-headlines nail biter that refrains from fictionalizing. The movie is quietly riveting. It’s a mystery where we know the denouement, and the intrigue comes in watching the team unveil each new piece of evidence. On February 24, 2002, the real Spotlight team would publish another installment that recorded over 200 abuse victims who had read the story and reached out to lawyers. This movie is a testament to the work that pushed those doors wide open.