Lawrence Toppman

‘Spotlight’ tells a troubling story, but you can’t look away

Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James play Boston Globe workers investigating pedophile priests in “Spotlight.”
Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James play Boston Globe workers investigating pedophile priests in “Spotlight.” Open Road Films

Philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” The truth of that can be found in “Spotlight.”

Director Tom McCarthy, who wrote the script with Josh Singer, has made a film without heroes. This dramatization of the Boston Globe’s exposure of pedophile priests in 2002 – and the complicity of church officials as high as Cardinal Bernard Law – exposes a chain of failures that let depravity go on for decades.

Police refused to take abuse cases seriously. Prosecutors chose not to arraign culprits. Lawyers made a cottage industry of hushing up crimes, arranging settlements for victims in exchange for silence. The cardinal and his employees ignored parishioners’ complaints or moved priests to churches where no one knew them, so abuse continued. And the Globe, alerted more than once, failed to grasp the scope of the story or commit resources to uncovering it.

“Spotlight” depicts Boston at the turn of the 21st century as a huge and mostly homogenous village, where more than half the citizens are Catholic. The church has vast influence, which it often uses to do benevolent things. Only with the arrival of an outsider, Jewish editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), does the Globe begin to push for the truth.

McCarthy captures the flow of information around a major newsroom, back in the days when papers had the luxury to pay for year-long investigations by a four-person staff that worked on nothing else. These journalists are skeptical, dogged, angry about injustice, defensive if their judgment gets questioned and protective of a scoop. (They want to downplay a breaking story, though the Metro editor plans to run it prominently, because it might wake up the competition.)

Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), who attended a Catholic high school across the street from the Globe and plays golf with a church attorney (Jamey Sheridan), heads this self-contained Spotlight team.

He’s inclined to blow off a flamboyant attorney (Stanley Tucci), who represents 84 alleged victims, and the high-strung head of a survivors’ group (Neal Huff). But as his reporters (Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and the especially forceful Mark Ruffalo) put together an unassailable case, his desire to report the truth overcomes old loyalties.

“Spotlight” doesn’t demonize the clergy. The picture estimates that 5 to 6 percent of the priests in Boston were guilty, though of course others knew about the scandal, and Law’s former civil rights advocacy gets acknowledged.

Yet the final credits note that scandals were uncovered in dozens of other cities, Charlotte among them. Law, far from being disciplined for his involvement, resigned peacefully in Boston; Pope John Paul II then made him Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Some victims took to alcohol or drugs; some took their lives. Yet perhaps the saddest thing for survivors is that many lost their trust in God. “When a priest does this to you,” says one, “he robs you of your faith.” What punishment befits such an offense?

Toppman: 704-358-5232


Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci.

Director: Tom McCarthy.

Length: 128 minutes.

Rating: R (some language including sexual references).