Spotlight: a brilliant film with such explosive subject matter it died several deaths before being made

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, “Spotlight.” Photo: Kerry Hayes Spotlight director, Tom McCarthy on set with Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo. Photo: Supplied


Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) in a scene from Spotlight. Photo: Supplied

They don’t make films like Spotlight any more, so people say. Perhaps they never really did. Spotlight is about a real-life team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who worked for months to document and finally reveal the cover-up by the local Catholic church of the sexual abuse of children by priests. What Spotlight is not about: star performances (even though its ensemble cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdam); the reporters’ personal lives; plot twists or emotional peaks and troughs; reporters as heroes. There is just work: the painstaking, paper-shuffling, probing work of accumulating facts and corroborating them to the point where a newspaper – that hulking, old-fashioned, barely lamented old warhorse of the Fourth Estate – can speak authoritative truth to power. And, as signposted by its six Oscar nominations, it is absolutely gripping.

The Spotlight team’s investigation came relatively late in the saga of sex-abuse scandals within the church; the series, which would eventually top 600 articles as more people came forward with stories and more priests were exposed, won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2003. One thing Tom McCarthy’s film makes clear, however, is that Boston is a staunchly Catholic city where the Church, schools, sport and government are clubbily intertwined.  Fifty-five per cent of their readers were practising Catholics. “The church had such power,” says Walter “Robbie” Robinson, the real head of the Spotlight unit, played by Michael Keaton in the film, “that if legislation it didn’t like was before the Massachusetts Legislature, they could get it killed.”

Not that the Globe felt compromised. Successive metro-section editors had run stories for years about accused and convicted priests in the normal run of its news coverage, earning a rebuke and an invocation of heavenly punishment from the local cardinal in the process. Even so, it took the arrival of an editor from outside Boston – Marty Barron, who came from the Miami Herald and would go on to become executive editor of the Washington Post – to lift the lid on the whole can of worms. “Don’t go after the man; go after the system,” he tells the team early in Josh Singer’s script, which has reportedly cleaved as closely as possible to the facts even down to what was said. So they do.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, Spotlight. Photo: AP

When they start, they think they have identified “as many as seven” abusive priests, who had simply been moved to other parishes when anguished parents complained. Then, in consultation with a psychologist and former priest who has made abusive priests his life’s study, they take a punt on the statistical likelihood that the numbers are much higher: maybe as many as 90 in Boston alone. By checking year-on-year church records, court reports and victims’ testimony, they find 87. By the end of their investigation, they have found 250.

Many of these priests’ victims had reported their attackers to the Church hierarchy and to the law. Some won small pay-outs in exchange for non-disclosure agreements. Apart from the cases the Globe had already reported, all were swept under the rug one way or another. Their investigations led back to the cardinal, who is shown in the film to have presided over the cover-up and resigned at the end of 2002; he is now Cardinal Priest of Santa Susanna, Rome’s American Catholic Church.

Producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust thought they had identified one of America’s great untold stories in 2008, the year they had the idea for Spotlight. They were thus confounded to find it was difficult even to find a screenwriter willing to tackle it. “People were not responding to the story the way we thought they would,” Faust said later. “They were a little bit scared.” Financing was even more problematic: McCarthy says that after he signed on to direct it in 2011 – fortunately bringing screenwriter Josh Singer with him – he saw the project die decisively three times. 

Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) in a scene from Spotlight. Photo: Supplied

Most dramatically, their major backer Dreamworks pulled out while McCarthy and Singer were working on the screenplay. “We never knew why,” says Rocklin in an on-set story from the Hollywood Reporter. “They never told us. But I can speculate. It’s a movie about paedophilia in the Catholic Church.” The Washington Post later said that Dreamworks dropped it after The Fifth Estate – about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, scripted by Singer – failed at the box office. Whatever the real reasons, the production went on hold and McCarthy took another job directing the disastrously bad Adam Sandler indie The Cobbler. This was Spotlight’s most decisive death so far.

In the end, Participant Media picked up Dreamworks’ share, but the same spirit of resistance emerged in dealings with the next tier of businesses involved in getting a film to the audience: the distributors. By that time Mark Ruffalo had signed up, but even the Hulk didn’t convince them. McCarthy says they would tell him that “even though it’s a great read, it doesn’t scream box office”.

The American release of the film in November was accordingly limited, the press coverage scant. This last point is particularly surprising for a film that actually lionises the press.

I love all the lionising, of course. To see a bustling, fully staffed newsroom on screen is actually thrilling. Recreated in a former Sears warehouse – the Sears catalogue being another victim of the online age – the Boston Globe of the turn of the millennium is furnished with cubicles coincidentally sold off by the downsizing Toronto Globe and Mail. These are our times. Back in 2001, however, the journalists spend weeks ploughing through archives in the basement while librarians bring down sheafs of files; the switchboard’s phones run hot. If they don’t make movies like this any more, they don’t make newspaper offices like this any more either. 

Spotlight director Tom McCarthy on set with Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo. Photo: Supplied

“I don’t think the general public really has any sense of what’s happened to the journalism industry in the last 10, 15 years,” McCarthy told the Washington Post. “People say there’s so much media out there, with the internet and new media, but I don’t think they really understand what professional journalism, institutionally supported journalism, is. And I think it’s in the great interest of many of the other big institutions to make sure that they don’t.”

Mark Ruffalo, who plays dogged, abrasive reporter Michael Rezendes, described journalists to the Hollywood Reporter as “our last defence against tyranny, our last defence against atrocity.” That may not be true very often, but McCarthy’s point is that this work, involving court hearings and doorstepping, expenses and huge swathes of time, is not the sort of work that can be done by a lone blogger.

But something similar could be said of audiences and films, few of which deal with anything difficult or dangerous or dare to step beyond the narrow expectations of soaring emotional arcs and loveable characters. This one does, which was why Michael Keaton wanted his role as soon as he read it. “I went to college in the ’70s. I went to anti-war demonstrations. We were aware of the civil rights movements,” he said at the time. “To think that someday you’d be doing what you love, and it could have an effect on society: that’s pretty great. In this movie, it’s stuff that people have been talking about a long time. But then when you see it this way, you realise that it’s shocking this hasn’t been addressed before on film. In that regard, it kind of feels bold.”