Spotlight: For the Sins of the World

November 25, 2015
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Review by Christian Leithart

  • In The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zosima addresses the monks at his abbey a few days before his death. He urges them to love one another and then reminds them that, though they have dedicated their lives to God, they are no more righteous than those who live outside the monastery walls. He says,

    "When [the monk] realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men — and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man."

    Watching Spotlight in a theater on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, it was impossible not to feel the weight of that responsibility. When the closing credits rolled at the end of the movie, not one person in the theater got up to leave. Everyone sat in silence. One or two people cursed. We sat drained, unwilling to get up and face the world in which this kind of wickedness had occurred — wickedness for which we felt largely responsible.

    More than anything else, that moment, with the credits rolling, cemented to me the effectiveness of this movie. Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture a few weeks ago, is so subtle, so understated, that we don't realize we're being drawn in until the finger is pointing back at us.

    The film tells the story of how a group of journalists discovered and investigated the wide-spread epidemic of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests with the full knowledge of the Catholic church. “Spotlight” is the real name of a small branch of the Boston Globe, a crack team of reporters that may spend up to a year choosing and investigating a story before they go to print. In 2001, Spotlight began investigating lawsuits brought by Boston residents against parish priests. These lawsuits spanned several decades, and in almost every case, they were quickly settled by the church and hushed. Over the course of a year, the Spotlight team tracked down hundreds of victims of sexual abuse — revealing a pattern that implicated almost 250 priests in the Boston area and hundreds more worldwide.

    Leading the Spotlight team is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the protagonist of the film in a formal sense. Robby is an aging, tough Boston kid who's been with the Globe for more than twenty years. His team consists of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel MacAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James, almost invisible compared to his performances on Broadway, most recently as King George III in the off-Broadway version of Hamilton — seriously, his restraint in Spotlight is noteworthy).


    Each of these characters, including Robby, is given almost no introduction. They are simply introduced as part of the Spotlight team, and seem to have no life beyond that. Over the course of the film, we learn a few details, such as the fact that all four of them have strong ties to the Boston community and that all four of them are married, though Rezendes is separated from his wife. When we see him boiling hotdogs in the middle of the night to eat while hunched over his laptop, writing, we begin to understand his family troubles. Of all of them, Matt Carroll is most obviously the family man, but even he communicates with his kids via notes taped to the fridge. Throughout the film, these reporters put aside every distraction in order to single-mindedly focus on pursuing their story.

    At the beginning of the movie, the Globe's new head editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, as subtle and effective as I've ever seen him), having recently transferred to Boston from the Miami Herald, notices that the Globe had reported on a sex abuse scandal but never followed up. Baron encourages the Spotlight team to focus on this new story, which he believes could lead to something bigger.

    As with the rest of the characters, Marty Baron is something of a riddle. We're never told what his angle is. Why does he suddenly take note of a minor story? What makes him think it will lead to something bigger? The film suggests that Baron has nothing up his sleeve beyond a rigorous devotion to revealing the truth, wherever it may be found. But because he doesn't participate in the actual investigation, Baron appears almost like an angel, guiding the others from on high. He works tirelessly, yet hardly ever reveals what he's thinking. He seems to understand the larger implications of what Spotlight is doing long before anyone else, but instead of laying down his cards, he guides the rest of the team to make the right conclusion on their own. As we'll see, Baron occupies something like a priestly figure in the story, leading the rest to repentance before absolving them of their guilt.

    Again and again, Baron stresses the importance of having an airtight case. “We're going after the entire system,” he tells them. Robby becomes Baron's surrogate in the investigation, following his instructions to the letter, even though he and the rest of his team don't exactly know what it is they're looking for. Once on the hunt, the Spotlight journalists chase their story almost like machines. We share their commitment to getting the truth, their haste in writing everything down. Considering that the abuse occurred over a decade before the film takes place, it's remarkable how urgent the entire investigation feels. It's a testament to how tightly woven the film's writing and editing are.

    The film is also thick with contrasts. The busy, crowded offices of the Globe are visually compared to the opulent sitting room of a Cardinal. The reporters rely on the testimony of two lawyers: the slick, smiling Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), in his high-ceiling, glass-walled office, and the messy, harried, verging-on-paranoid defense attorney Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). While these comparisons may seem blunt and unforgiving (too on-the-nose), as the film unfolds, the appearances actually work against the characters. There is always more under the surface.


    The Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac described the church as the ultimate destiny of all mankind. Men are made in the image of God, and therefore, we can all look forward to a single hope. Ideally, the church on earth is a picture of that final destiny, and as such, the church becomes a model, and even a mediator, for the rest of the human race. But, as de Lubac acknowledged, we are not there yet. In the meantime, the church stumbles along, an imperfect picture of the future.

    Stories like the one Spotlight tells are a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who agrees with de Lubac. If the church is the mediator for the world, the priest that shows the world the way to making peace with God, what will become of the world when the church begins to prey on the weak instead of standing up for them? In a way, Spotlight provides an answer.

    The sexual and spiritual abuse that the church is guilty of has horrific, far-reaching consequences. Many lives were ruined as a result of the evil of these priests. The reporters of the Boston Globe are rightly held up as the heroes of this story, since they provided a way for the victims to speak out. The final scene of the film shows Robby surrounded by his team, all of them frantically answering phones as people call to share their stories of abuse. The truth has come out. Sin has been revealed.

    But as Robby and the others realize, they are just as guilty as the church in their negligence. By the time the last piece of the puzzle clicks into place, every single character finds themselves uncomfortably in the spotlight. “If this happened, people would know,” one character says, to which Robby responds, “Maybe they do know.” The lawyers, the priests, the victims, even the reporters — everyone with any ties to the city — knew that corruption was there behind the scenes, but nobody took steps to address it. The movie is very clear on this point. Not even the Globe — that bastion of truth, the only institution with enough clout to go toe-to-toe with that other great edifice of truth, the Catholic church — not even the Globe is without implication in the crime. The offices of the newspaper are literally across the street from one of the Catholic high schools where the abuse occurred. And when Sacha goes through the Globe's archives, she discovers that the paper had reported on the abuse before, only to immediately bury the story.

    The only character in the film who is truly innocent of the crime is Baron, who shows up out of the blue from another city entirely. Near the end of the film, Baron says this, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on, and there’s fair share of blame to go around. I can’t speak to what happened before I arrived but all of you have done some very good reporting here, reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”

    I would be surprised if anyone left the theater where I watched the film without asking themselves, "What could I have done? Is there sin right in front of me that I'm not seeing?" As Elder Zosima says, the key to serving God is to realize the depth of our own sinfulness. In this way, Spotlight is remarkably effective. But more than that, as Zosima says, the key to serving God is to realize that we are not only responsible for our own sins, but also for the sins of the world. None of the reporters in the film committed a crime, but all of them suffer guilt for what happened in their city. Only by bringing the truth to light can the characters absolve themselves. So, oddly, the entire movie comes down to a case of penance. Marty Baron, as surrogate priest, reveals the sin, not only of the church, but of the people, and only when that sin is brought to light (through the relentless pursuit of truth at all costs) can it be confessed and addressed.

    Ultimately, Spotlight advocates for true, measurable repentance — through action. The question is not who is to blame for allowing the priests to prey on the defenseless. The question is, now that the truth is revealed, what will the response be?

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  • Release Date
    November 25, 2015
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