Between “Black Mass,” and the recently released “Spotlight,” Boston and its surrounding area does not emerge looking like a particularly pleasant place in which to live. Although the first is a movie about mobsters and the second about pedophile priests, the two share similarities: multiple scenes of people threatening/bribing each other and characters who defend their actions when backed in a corner by blurting out the old chestnut, “I was just doing my job.” Fortunately, the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and headed by Liev Schreiber as the new Globe editor) are on the side of the victims, in composing a story which will prove that there are more than just a few “bad apples” and something is truly rotten in the Catholic Church diocese.
The movie both fits and deviates from the typical Hollywood portrayal of a whistleblower. Stage One is when we meet the players. Sometimes we get background on their families, but here, the focus is mostly on the journalists themselves. We do learn that except for Liev, who is Jewish, they are all more or less lapsed Catholics. Some, like Rachel’s character, attend church with a devout relative; others, like Mark’s character, have moved away from the Church but haven’t completely given up the idea of abandoning it altogether. At the beginning of the movie, the Spotlight team is attempting to come up with its next big story, and when they hear about a possible scandal involving sexual allegations and what appears to be a church-wide cover-up of the perps, they scrap the one they’re currently looking at and take that one instead. Though there have been attempts by others to give the Globe this information before, for various reasons, it’s not been taken seriously. However, that’s about to change.
Stage Two is the information gathering stage where the characters sense that something is not entirely on the up-and-up but have no idea of the breadth and depth of the evil involved. At first, the team, given information by someone who’s been studying deviant behavior in the priesthood since the sixties, learns that six percent of priests “act out.” They do the math and decide it’s about 13 in Boston; but once they start interviews and probe further, they realize that number is woefully low. As a character points out, it often takes an outsider to start focusing on an issue that’s been a problem for a long time but not addressed. While none of the Spotlight team are ex-employees of a company or, like Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,” someone who is an outsider at her job, they are, as reporters, used to probing into potential hornets nests and aren’t about to be deterred by scare tactics, in order to unearth the truth.
Stage Three is when the characters start experiencing conflict with the source they are attempting to expose. There’s no dramatic bullets in the mailbox or bricks through the window, but the Catholic Church has been assiduously blocking attempts by the victims (and some insiders) to make the allegations public. as well as the fact that their approach has been to transfer priests to a different parish. There’s lawyers who won’t talk because they don’t want to be disbarred, victims who are conflicted about speaking publicly, and a whole other slew of difficulties in obtaining the right documents. But of course, they persist.
Stage Four is the come-uppance phase where hopefully, the bad guys finally get what’s coming to them. Like many movies, however, your enthusiasm is tempered by follow up information presented in an epilogue, in which you learn that sadly, the bad guys are still sort of doing whatever it is they shouldn’t be. Still, like Mark’s character, it may be hard to attend church this holiday season and watch the children’s choir perform with the same kind of perspective. Is faith a stronger force than the law as one priest claims in the movie? Hopefully, not in this case. As Mark’s character puts it, “It could have been me, it could have been you, it could have been any of us.”