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A reflection on Tom McCarthy's 'Spotlight'

January 20, 2016


Brittany Harvey has written at LCB in the past. Here she is again with some thoughts on the Oscar-nominated film Spotlight:

Having watched my son learn to crawl and walk over the last year, I have not seen many movies. However, I did see Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), and I cannot imagine many films, if any, being better. The acting, writing, directing, the score, etc. are all fantastic. When these things are good, however, it really just means that a film is a fine specimen of its craft. And, while Spotlight happens to be well-crafted, it also happens to be one of those rare movies that remind us why we stare at a big screen production in the first place. When Spotlight ends, you wish there were more, though you realize to add any more might spoil what is already perfect.


Though named after the Boston Globe’s team of investigative reporters, the film’s title limits the scope of the film. A spotlight only illuminates a fraction of a stage. A spotlight is, in fact, a well-lit but condensed space. The word small comes to mind, and, in kind, the film is full of small words.

In the opening scene, we see a glimpse of how perpetual abuse and cover up existed within a self-righteous city. While a priest, guilty of destroying the innocence of a young boy, waits in a police station to be reassigned to another parish, police tell the victim’s mother how this will not happen to her son again. Small words. Useless words. Perhaps it won’t happen to her son again, but it did, and he will live with it the rest of his life. And it will happen to other sons, and nothing will be done. These criminal acts are widespread.

Later, in a meeting at the paper about the release of the story, the reporters realize the paper did not act on a lead about the numerous priests accused of sexual abuse against children in the Boston area. This failure to act happened a decade before the events covered in the film. One of the reporters in the room may actually be the person responsible for the oversight. Tragically, the agency shining light on the city’s deeply rooted corruption is partially responsible for that corruption’s enduring nature. One of the reporters argues that the story could only have been written in the film’s present, when The Boston Globe’s investigative team existed to spend so much time on it. “The story needed Spotlight,” he claims. And, perhaps, this is true. But those small words are full of a vanity specific to noble causes.

While denying the victims of Catholic priests their justice, what stories did Spotlight choose to tell in that decade of denial? Such questions can create a rabbit hole of worry. After all, what tragedies now might lack the equivalent of Spotlight’s focus? The double-bind of investigative journalism is that to do the job well is to not do all the jobs. Not all stories can be told at once. A spotlight is, after all, quite small.

The film ends with a listing of all the cities in the world where scandals involving children sexually abused by priests have been uncovered. This scandal is not small. The names of these cities contain the whole of human geography. The entire film takes place in the greater Boston area, but the story is a global one. The film cites the cities because the list of names is not small, but, indeed, too long to fathom.

Spotlight has been compared to All the Presidents’ Men (1976) quite a bit. There are some interesting comparisons to make, but a more fascinating, and perhaps more telling juxtaposition is with its contemporary, Concussion (2015).


Directed by Peter Landesman, Concussion chronicles Dr. Bennet Omalu’s struggle to unveil the effects of repetitive concussions on NFL players. As the NFL works to cover up Omalu’s findings, for fear of losing players and, more importantly, profits, the film enters into the complex layers of economic and social pressures that surround the professional sports world. Moreover, the film enters into a discourse on the expectations of masculinity within the world of professional sports and how those expectations so often render the strongest men imaginable into victims of societal pressure and institutional power.

Because these men chose to play in the NFL, using the same word to describe them and Catholic children in Boston may seem somewhat insufficient and insensitive to the nature of each crisis. However, these men were victims, who, in their own way, were unaware of the game’s consequences. The NFL should have protected them, but, instead, chose to lie to them about the risks of repetitive concussions.

Eventually, however, the NFL had to acknowledge the dangers of the game, and, while not perfect, rules have been changed. Protocol now requires brain injuries to be extensively monitored. Players are trained to hit and tackle differently. Sadly though, the reality is that these changes were probably made out of motivation to protect the game we love as fans more than the players who play the game we love. Either way, the players are better off, but the sentiment still appears wanting.

In Spotlight, too, we learn that the system is what we protect, at the cost of our children. Though the light just barely touches on it in the film, we catch glimpses of a system that not only covers up atrocities, but perpetuates the conditions which create them. We see, although limited in scope, how some of the abusers were once abused, and that even though light has been shone in the darkest of places, spotlights do not shine everywhere at all times. Cardinal Law resigned, but remained a Cardinal. He even participated in the 2005 Papal Conclave, electing Pope Benedict XVI. And really, what has come from the investigative reporting? While the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to go before a Congressional committee for “the shield’s” negligence, who from the church has had to do anything of the like?


Two movies about two systems. One matters enough to change it, in order to save it and its victims, and another system matters enough to cover up its abuses, ignore its victims, and remain untouched. Dr. Omalu is told in Concussion that he cannot win because the NFL owns a day of the week; the same day the church used to own. 


Perhaps the church needs a lesson from the corporation that stole its audience. Maybe the true lesson is that words are small—especially when they are about small victims—but brain cells of big men cannot be ignored forever. And so perhaps what makes Spotlight such a fine example of craft is how it shines a light on its audience. The reporter in that news meeting is not alone in taking some of the blame about what stories are told and not told. His challenge to the paper is a challenge to us. He asks us how we let this happen, how we have not done anything about it. He challenges the other reporters and the audience to stare into the vast darkness, to find the small words in all those untold stories.

Brittany Harvey blogs about parenting at The Uncommon House Wife

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