The Necessary Ordinariness of 'Spotlight'

The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.

“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never. 

Ruffalo’s is the best performance in a movie that for better and worse plays as a newsroom procedural. Director Tom McCarthy (who also did the screenplay) keeps things compelling and taut. Churches impose themselves into scenes of reporters seeking out victims, or loom in the background. Journalists attest to the movie’s accurate depiction of the trade, the sartorial haplessness of its practitioners, the office “decor.” Even Vatican Radio gives it a thumbs-up.

Those searching for similarities to All the President’s Men will find what they need, as will those seeking to draw contrasts. (Count me among the latter, and not just because John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. is no Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee pere.) There are, in addition to Ruffalo’s many fine moments, a number of powerful small performances by those in the roles of now-adult victims recalling their abuse, plus Stanley Tucci’s turn as victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian.

At the close of the film, a stark title-card reminds us that then-cardinal Bernard Law, who oversaw the coverup, was in 2004 appointed by John Paul II an archpriest of Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Then come three screens of multi-column fine-print—a lengthy list of the dioceses in the United States and around the world known to have harbored and covered up for sexually abusive priests. This brought gasps from the sold-out audience at the showing I attended, which was the likely intent. The Globe investigation determined that the Boston archdiocese was aware that more than seventy of its priests had preyed on thousands of victims over the decades. How to resist the impulse to extrapolate? Who would continue to fall back on statistical rationalizations like “only X percent of priests were molesters”?

Spotlight thus in some ways leaves less of an impression as a film than as the sober recounting of an outrage. In reminding viewers of the magnitude and scope of the scandal, it keeps the focus off itself, like in fact a good journalist staying out of the way of her subject. It may win Oscars, but it has risked being cinematically “unmemorable,” so that the desecration it documents won’t be forgotten. Read its ordinariness as a simple prayer for those who suffered, and continue to.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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