Back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when a priest took an interest in a South Boston Irish Catholic kid, the child's mother was usually levitating with sheer delight over it. At the time predominantly Irish neighborhoods like Dorchester were often hardscrabble places, and to get a nod from the clergy was often like a nod from God Himself.
Looking back now, you can see how most parents would have hoped that the attention from a priest might help give their kids a better start in life. None of them would have suspected that instead, it could end up marking them for life.
Spotlight,, the compelling new film by Irish American director Tom McCarthy, 49, assembles an all-star list of actors to tell the story of how four dedicated investigative reporters at The Boston Globe refused to back down in their pursuit of the Boston sex abuse scandal.
The real life Spotlight is the oldest continuously operating investigative unit in journalism in the United States, which means that its current members had a long legacy to build on and something to prove themselves.
As played by Brian d'Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton, the four emerge as scrappy, tough talking, hardened hacks, just the sort of people you'd want to assign to such a potentially intimidating brief.
There's a lot in the film's subject matter to be astonished by. Case after case of abuse allegations are, the team discovers, placed in sealed files and then disappeared in court libraries where no one can find them. Abusive priests are passed on from parish to parish with no repercussions.
We learn that Cardinal Bernard Law's first priority is to protect the church. His last priority is to protect the innocent.
McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, has created a 21st century newsroom drama filled with direct-from-life authenticity, thanks to his research into the lives and work of the real life Boston Globe writers. For Spotlight’s journalists, onscreen job cuts are the first order of the day.
The internet is already shaking up the industry and the new boss (Liev Schreiber) is a brilliant blow-in from Florida that nobody knows and who still can't find his way to the nearest subway, but he wants to shake up Boston nonetheless.
So far so right on the money. Spotlight is set in mid- to late 2001, before 9/11 changed American history. As the three men and one woman investigative team go digging for proof that there are more than just a “few bad apples” being hidden from sight by Cardinal Law, they quickly come up against the forces that want to keep their discoveries under wraps forever.
Predatory priests were able to prey on the young with impunity they discover, protected by their clerical collars, because all the power was in their hands and often it stayed there even after their abuse had been exposed.
Abusers were passed on from parish to parish for decades, and no action was taken. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes ones to keep their abuse a secret too they discover.
In the months leading up to Spotlight’s release, critics both here and abroad have lamented that it's just digging over old coals, while others who have yet to see it have already started calling it anti-Catholic propaganda.
The desire to sweep unpleasant truths under the rug is as strong now as it was then in other words, and it's that hiding impulse that Spotlight shows us is so dangerous. Abusers thrive when everyone else is too afraid to confront them or speak up. All it takes is for good men to stay silent while bad ones do their worst.
The cast of Spotlight is uniformly excellent with this hard hitting material. Keaton and Ruffalo are particularly good as reporter and editor, especially when they're at loggerheads over when and how to proceed.
In the process McCarthy serves us up the first genuinely riveting newsroom drama of the 21st century, crafting Spotlight like a thriller and allowing his talented team to inch closer to the truth as the film progresses at a clip.
Since the film is set in 2001 we can see from our vantage point now in 2015 just how much has been lost in journalism in the intervening years. Newsrooms rarely give their staff the kind of unfettered ability to pursue every lead that the Spotlight crew enjoyed back at the turn of the century, and then we realize that the scandals they brought to light back then might never break now, because the resources and the support are gone.
The truth is the Fourth Estate now mostly has a for sale sign attached to it, and journalists of the kind that run the Spotlight team are more likely to pursue other pursuits, much to the nation's loss.
In 2003 the four real life Spotlight team members won the Pulitzer Prize, but by 2015 it's hard to imagine they'd be able to mount the kind of investigation the scandal they pursued required.
In Spotlight the movie the team have the time to do their research and do it well. They pursue facts and when the time comes they print them. In this era of Twitter and Instagram it's refreshing to see McCarthy's dedication to the grit and grind old school journalism.
“We have to gamble artistically,” McCarthy told the Los Angeles Times. “We made a commitment to let the facts play. We said let's commit to the process in its thrilling nature, in its mundane nature, in its tedious nature, in its relentless nature.
“Let's just commit to that and the process of high-level journalism and, hopefully, because of the subject matter and actual thrust of the investigation, it will be interesting to our audience because it's the truth.”
It's exhilarating to have a major Hollywood movie decide to trust an audience's intelligence with a complex and deeply intelligent film about a genuinely national scandal like Spotlight.
Until the truth was uncovered by the Globe's Spotlight team about the sheer scale of the sex abuse in Boston, Cardinal Law was thought by many to be on a fast track to the papacy. That rise was blocked by the discovery that he had knowingly shielded pedophile priests for years, moving them on to new communities where they could attack again and again.
The question Spotlight asks and finds hard to answer is why so many good people stood by for years when the facts showed them it was a time to take action?
The answer it offers is that many were intimidated by the might of the church, and afraid they might lose their own faith in the battle to save others.
For the record, Law’s successor, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Sean O’Malley, later approved an $85 million settlement to 542 victims, which led to church closures and the sale of property after the massive deficit Law had left.
For his troubles Pope John Paul rewarded Law with a enviable post at one of the Vatican’s top basilicas. If that is what contrition looks like, it's a cushy post.
Spotlight opened November 6.