Spotlight (2015) explained: a conspiracy of silence


A team of journalists clashes with the Catholic church in Spotlight, the true story of a city that kept quiet about child abuse.

What is Spotlight about?

In the early 2000s, Boston Globe newspaper’s Spotlight investigative journalism team found evidence of widespread sexual abuse and systemic failings within the Catholic church.

This film – based on real events – reveals why the victims weren’t heard, and how reporters pieced together the evidence to get them justice.

The second plot in Spotlight

Spotlight reveals the processes (and emotional costs) of journalism. Here, reporters from the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncover decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

However, the film actually contains a number of overlapping plots.

First, there’s the story the journalists are writing: some 90 priests have been abusing children in Boston for decades, and the Catholic church has been burying the details.

However, the film dwells more on the challenge the reporters face in trying to report the story. The legal threats, intimidation and culture of silence mirrors the trauma victims have been living with for decades.

There’s also a parallel thread of legal accountability:

“We’ve got two stories here: a story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. Which story do you want us to write? Because we’re writing one of them.”


But underneath these stories of community failings lies a secondary plot about the newspaper itself.

New editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has been hired to boost the Globe’s profits, either by making cuts or doing something new. In fact, the inciting event that gets the Spotlight team investigating paedophile priests is Baron’s aim of increasing readership.

Ironically, the story they end up chasing sounds like the one their readership is most likely to reject.

Can you ever be on the inside?

Like 2007’s Boston-based Gone Baby Gone, Spotlight shows the difficulty of belonging – and how even insiders can mistake their place in the hierarchy.

Here, the newspaper treads a fine line between the truth and what readers want to hear about. Reporters are following up failings in the Catholic church … but 58% of their readership is Catholic.

Faith is really important to their audience. Sacha’s grandmother relies on the church, going to services several times a week. So, while reporters know the kids come first, breaking the story threatens a vital source of comfort for many people.

Marty Baron exacerbates these tensions. He’s Jewish, non-religious and doesn’t even like baseball; he’s an outsider. In contrast, many of his reporters are Boston insiders.

Spotlight leader Robby (Michael Keaton) is one of them. His old school is across the street from the newspaper offices. He’s so much a part of the community he can’t always recognise its failings.

Instead, it takes outsiders to see things as they are, people like Baron and Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). A lawyer of Armenian descent, Garabedian is scathing about locals who discriminate against foreigners, yet mistreat their own kids.

This is Robby’s weakness, too. He’s blind to the truth about belonging: there’s always more one inner circle of power, whether it’s church politics or peers.

This is why the abused kids suffer for years; they’re part of the community, but set apart from truly belonging or feeling at peace there.

Tunnel blindness causes Robby to overlook the scale of their trauma. The people he hounds for evidence actually gave it to the paper 20 years ago – and Robby buried it.

The crime of silence

Ultimately, jingoism and tunnel vision feed a culture of silence and intimidation. As Garabedian points out:

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

He means that it takes collusion to hide child abuse. Across city, community and society, the only thing adults need to do is look away or keep quiet.

So many people know what’s going on in Boston. Some, like the victims and their families, are intimidated into staying silent. Others work to maintain the culture of fear and secrecy, including:

  • Cardinal Law and other church representatives
  • The lawyers who feel so hopeless about change that they end up colluding with systemic abuse
  • Even the Boston Globe initially writes off victims as cranks.

The web of silence is there when reporter Matt Carroll doesn’t tell his neighbours about the treatment centre near his home. He does it for noble reasons – to end a far bigger culture of abuse – but it’s a risky game.

There are others who keep quiet for more troubling reasons. The leaders Robby meets don’t want to believe their town could have such a dark heart. So they deny there’s a problem, and excuse themselves from acting.

They put town loyalty above the safety of their own children, perhaps assuming it always happens to other people’s kids. And also because they worry about being on the outside – of not belonging.

The priests may be abusing the kids, but they do it in plain and open sight … and the actions of others help hide it.

The power of the church

The positive image of the church in film and literature has declined somewhat in the last few decades.

1959’s A Nun’s Story showed us women inspired by the goodness of God. A few years later, The Sound of Music pitted a nun against the Nazis (and she won). And in 1973, cinema audiences accepted The Exorcist’s priests as the only thing standing between us and the Devil.

We’ve since come to recognise greater horrors in the failings of organised religion of all faiths; of schools from Ireland to Canada that mistreated children, pregnant women and vulnerable people.

Of course, there’s a lot of good to religion. But in Spotlight, the church is no defender of the weak. If anything, the priests single out kids from poor families.

“How do you say no to God?”

These families respect their priests: “how do you say no to God”, Phil Saviano asks. Moreover, these kids are more likely to be consumed by guilt and shame and social problems; they’re less able to speak out.

The priests wage a class war against these families. They seek out the most vulnerable and voiceless and use them for their own ends. They drain the good from the communities they touch instead of raising them up.

‘Organised’ religion is key to this. In the film, church systems protect the priests. They operate above the law, removing legal documents from the courthouse and settling cases in private. Rather than safeguarding children, they try to have Garabedian disbarred.

Their power is so far reaching and so ancient that it’s not even questioned (except by outsiders). Indeed, when Cardinal Law gives Baron a guide to Boston, it’s actually a Catholic text book, the Catechism.

The trope of the musical montage

Spotlight is a procedural film about journalism, similar to All the President’s Men and The Post.

The Spotlight team wade through directories and witness testimonies to uncover abuse on a monstrous scale. Despite threats and legal hurdles, the investigation grows from a single priest … to more than 90.

The film uses a common trope to make this more manageable: the musical montage. There’s a similar knowledge sequence in WarGames, in the scene when a young computer hacker hits the library.

Like the song-and-dance cutaways of contemporary Bollywood movies, and earlier UK and US movie musicals, the montage folds time. Thus a lengthy (and perhaps fairly dry) investigation is trimmed away, leaving the more emotionally resonant scenes.

Writing the wrongs

Spotlight is about the difficulty of finding and airing the truth. This is journalism at its best: journalism as justice, society and perhaps even therapy. Yet any victories sit alongside the reality that countless children suffered abuse for years.

Garabedian says it takes a village to destroy a child, and he’s right. But so too is the reverse. It’s people working together who – eventually – can stop the rot.

The film reflects the value of the press in uncovering corruption and speaking for the voiceless. Here, the newspaper becomes a tool of the local community, serving its interests. Ultimately, it returns power to the people.

Predators and abusers isolate their victims. True communities draw us together, breaking the spell of secrecy and silence.

Spotlight (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy

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Picture credit: Ren Wang