By Christopher B. Daly
In the new movie “Spotlight,” there’s a wonderful scene where a reporter is seeking documents in a courthouse. The building is a dreary linoleum monument to The Way Things Are. In the scene, a recalcitrant clerk treats the reporter as if he were a nuisance and declines to lift a finger.
The moment perfectly captures an ethos that I remember well from my own adventures as a reporter covering Massachusetts
government, courts, and politics. In that world, the idea that knowledge is power is intuitively understood by all parties, like an article of faith or an early item in the Catechism. The thinking goes something like this: If I know something that you don’t know, why should I tell you? If I tell you, then you’ll know as much as I do. So, go fuck yourself.
Freedom of information? Ha!
And that ethos pervades much of the world that “Spotlight” tries to illuminate. The film takes its title from the special investigative unit at the Boston Globe that cracked open the scandal inside the clergy and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Globe team documented the pervasive, long-running practice of high-ranking Church officials covering up for priests who sexually molested, abused, and raped children.
The film pits two powerful Boston institutions against each other — the Church and the city’s big newspaper. Worthy adversaries, they did battle for years in the early 2000s. The paper was trying to pry evidence of the scandal out of court records (which were sealed, naturally, under terms of the many settlements the Church reached with its victims), out of victims, out of lawyers, out of anyone who would talk.
Church officials, starting with the disgraced former cardinal, Bernard Law, used a variety of classic techniques: stonewalling, threatening, denying, appealing to old friendships. According to the film-makers, some Church leaders and some lay defenders of the Church tried to demonize the Globe’s then-new top editor, Marty Baron, by raising insidious questions about him: isn’t he Jewish? why isn’t he married? he’s not from here, is he?
Ultimately, of course, the journalists triumph — in the film just as they did in real life. In doing so, “Spotlight” sends out a strong and welcome message: Journalism ain’t dead yet. For a field that has had more than its share of bad news for more than a decade now, it’s nice to be reminded that journalism matters.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy clearly holds journalism in high regard. He takes us close inside the reporting process. We watch the team of reporters made up of Matt Carroll (played by Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Mike Rezendes (a twitchy Mark Ruffalo) as they are led by “Robby” Robinson (played with eerie intensity by Michael Keaton, who played a big-city daily paper editor in “The Paper” in 1994) and their boss, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery).
One of the best things about “Spotlight” is the way it portrays the thrill of the chase that fuels reporters when they are trying to pin down an important story. We see the Globe reporters toiling into the night, wrecking their weekends, and actually enjoying their work. We root for them as they match wits with surly clerks, oily Church fixers, and the dead weight of centuries of Catholic indoctrination and obedience. (“Yes, Father.” “Of course, Father.” “Yes, Your Eminence.”)
In my opinion, the film makes one major mis-step. It is unnecessarily harsh in its portrayal of Eric MacLeish, grandson of Archibald MacLeish and a Boston attorney who represented many of the Church’s victims. I spoke to MacLeish many times during those years, and he was always straight with me and as forthcoming as his legal duties would allow. In the film, he is depicted as the asshole lawyer who could help the Globe but won’t. Instead, attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played marvelously by Stanley Tucci) gets to play the only decent lawyer in sight.
I saw “Spotlight” in October at a special screening for faculty and students of Boston University (the alma mater of two real-life Spotlight reporters, Sacha Pfeiffer and Mike Rezendes). All the key figures from the Globe investigation were there, except for Baron, who has moved on to be the top editor of The Washington Post. Robby acknowledged a point made in the film that I had not been aware of — that sources had sent the Globe much of the evidence needed to break the story years earlier, but no one paid much attention.
The film ends just as the Globe breaks the big story, in January 2002. The story rocked the Church, all the way to Rome, by dragging all the foul deeds of priests out of the darkness and into the light (the spotlight, if you will), and it won the paper a Pulitzer Prize.
The folks at the Globe (at least, those who still have jobs) are rightly proud of their newspaper. The depiction of reporting that we see in “Spotlight” gives all of us who work in journalism a reason to feel proud too, by reminding us that the world would be a pretty crummy place without those driven, impertinent, nosy people who won’t take no for answer.
[Full disclosure: I’m a lapsed Catholic myself — or, as I prefer to put it, a “collapsed Catholic.” I am also a journalist who worked in Boston during those years. I covered the trials of two of the Church’s “bad apples” — Father Porter and Father Geoghan. But like everyone else, I failed to connect the dots. So, I tip my hat to the Globies who did the hard, sustained reporting that it took. Bravo.]