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Film / Spotlight

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"When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?"

In 1973, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with the aid of Washington Post director Ben Bradlee, uncovered a trail of shady connections that linked a burglary at the Watergate Hotel to president Richard Nixon himself, resulting in the biggest political scandal in American history; the story would eventually be memorialized with the 1976 film All the President's Men. In 2002, Bradlee's son would uncover a similarly impactful and damaging scandal alongside the staff at The Boston Globe, this time surrounding the American branches of the Catholic Church. This is the film which memorializes that story.

Spotlight is a 2015 film directed by Tom McCarthy. It tells the Real Life story of the investigative team of the Boston Globe during the early 2000s as they researched and released the first major report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, a series which won them the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

Marty Baron arrives in Boston as the new editor of the Globe, and assigns the Spotlight investigative team to follow a trail of lawsuits pertaining to a priest accused of sexual abuse some years in the past. As they dig deeper, meeting with traumatized victims, corrupt clergy, and complicit lawyers, they discover that the menace of child sexual abuse in Boston's Catholic parishes runs deeper than anyone suspected. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci.

The Boston Globe has a special landing page for the film, which includes all of the real articles that won the team the Pulitzer, plus several new pieces from the Globe reporters detailing their experiences with the production of the film.

This film provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Released in 2015, set primarily in 2001-2002 (with a Distant Prologue in 1976).
  • Affably Evil: Cardinal Law, if you see him as evil. It's clear he let abuse go unaddressed and simply covered it up but he's a sincerely polite and friendly man in private and is also mentioned as having been a supporter of civil rights in his youth and we see him make a genuine plea for tolerance and unity with followers of Islam after 9/11.
  • All Gays Are Pedophiles: Subverted, when the journalists express surprise that survivor’s group SNAP has a female member, Phil Saviano explicitly states that the molestation has nothing to do with homosexuality, and is really about power. It’s apparent that priests largely target boys because they are less likely to speak out than girls and there is less societal understanding of male-on-male sexual assault, not because they are gay. Plus, with the church's use of choir boys, close contact was far easier to achieve.
  • Amoral Attorney: Zig-Zagged. Victims' lawyer Eric MacLeish is initially depicted as a greedy lawyer who exploits his clients by arranging off-the-record settlements with the Church (taking a cut for himself in every case). However, as it later turns out, years earlier, he actually sent information about these cases to the Globe, but it was buried in the Metro section ... which Robby was in charge of at the time.
  • Awful Truth: As the Spotlight team digs deeper into the case, they discover that they aren't dealing with just one or two predatory priests, but dozens. And that's just in Boston. Made worse by the sheer number of people who knew something about the abuse, but ignored it, and in some cases, actively helped to hide it. And not just in the Church, but pretty much everyone in a position of authority. Cops, judges, lawyers, politicians, etc.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: When told that the Judge hearing the Globe's motion to unseal the documents in Garabedian's case is a woman named Constance Sweeney, Ben and Robbie tell Barron that she's a "good Catholic girl" unlikely to rule against the church. There's a betting pool, but it's only for people guessing how quickly she will rule against the paper. Later, Sweeney's only actual scene in the movie has her speaking a bit sternly to the Globe's outside counsel, Jon Albano, in the courtroom. But in the end, Sweeney turns out to be a more impartial judge than they gave her credit for, and rules in favor of allowing public access to the damning documents.
  • Based on a True Story: With some elements condensed and one event added for dramatism. Major Spoiler
  • Batman Gambit: Garabedian explains to Rezendes that when the church's lawyers file a motion opposing his motion, he can then file an opposition brief with all the documents the reporter has been trying to get attached as exhibits, thus putting them into the public record.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: It is never totally clear how much of the cover-up is a cynical manipulation to hold onto their power, and how much of it is the priests (and Cardinal Law especially), actually believing what he tells the parents. Certainly, Father Paquin (who freely admits to "fooling around" with boys but claims it wasn't rape because he got no pleasure from it, and that he knows the difference because he was raped as a child) seems totally sincere in his justifications.
  • Big Bad: Cardinal Bernard Law manages the cover-up in Boston.
  • The Big Board: On the back wall of the Spotlight team's office, to keep track of where the priests were every year, until they realize they're dealing with way more pedophile priests than just 13.
  • Blatant Lies: When an intern (credits say her name is Wanda) stops by the Spotlight office to deliver some newspaper clips, she asks Matt Caroll directly if they are doing a story on the church. Matt deadpans, "No, we are not doing a story on the church."
  • Blind Obedience: The devotion of congregants towards the institution that abused them and their families borders on this. One victim claims his mother baked cookies for the priest that wanted the charges to go away.
  • Bookends: The film begins in the 1970s, when Father John Geoghan (one of the most notorious abusive priests) has been arrested and some of his young victims are waiting and coloring in a gray police station. It ends with lawyer Mitchell Garabedian greeting two new young victims, abused two weeks ago, who are coloring in a gray waiting room in his office.
  • Broken Pedestal: Played for Drama. Phil Saviano explains why so many survivors turn to drugs (or even suicide): seeing an institution they have so much faith in abuse them so horribly harms them spiritually, leaving them with a void they can only fill through vice.
  • The Cameo: Richard Jenkins is the voice of a priest-turned-psychiatrist.
  • Cassandra Truth: Phil Saviano, a survivor of clerical abuse and leader of a support group, reported the rampant abuse to the Globe years before the events of the film but was not taken seriously. Even after the Spotlight team interviews him, Bradlee is very skeptical because of his zeal. Naturally, as it becomes more obvious that he was telling the truth, he's very frustrated that it took everyone so long to listen.
  • Christianity is Catholic: For the purposes of this film, at least. The focus is very much on how the power, secrecy and hierarchy of the Church combined to keep the abuse concealed for so long. Other denominations don't really come up (aside from Carroll mentioning that he attends his wife's Presbyterian Church), though Baron being Jewish and Garabedian being a non-Catholic Armenian are both mentioned as being a factor in them being able to take on the Church without being awed by it the way practising Catholics are, or personally betrayed and enraged by it in the manner of the lapsed Catholics.
  • Competence Porn: The film is about a team of journalists doing their due diligence to uncover the full extent of the Catholic Church's child sex abuse scandal in Boston.
  • Conveniently Timed Distraction: Averted. The reporters fear that being pulled off the story to cover 9/11 could cost them the victim interviews they had scheduled, and hurt the story, but it does not.
  • Corrupt Church: The whole focus of the Catholic Church is on keeping the entire subject of pedophile priests off the radar, out of the public eye, and away from the legal system. The welfare of the victims isn't even considered. The movie makes this clear right from the outset: a bishop is talking to the family of two children who have been sexually molested by Geoghan, and all he cares about is making sure they don't take this public. While he's talking to the family, Geoghan is shown sitting in another room. He has no lines, but his facial expression and body language are pure boredom. He's been through this before, he knows there will be no consequences, he knows the church will protect him, and he knows he'll be given plenty of opportunities to do it again.
  • Creator's Oddball: Thomas Mc Carthy's other films have generally been low-stakes explorations of unconventional human relationships. This is a film in the style of the social-justice oriented 1970s action films where there's far less emphasis on characterization.
  • Creepy Cathedral: Quite a number of shots have Catholic churches looming in background.
  • Crisis of Faith: Not surprisingly, investigating this story has a toll on the faith of Sacha and Mike, both of whom were already pretty lapsed Catholics, but during the course of the film, the thought of going back to the church utterly repulses them. It is also mentioned that the victims go through this as well. They became confused and scared when someone they held with as much reverence as God began to take advantage of them sexually. Averted with ex-priest Richard Sipe, who despite it all still considers himself Catholic.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Mitch Garabedian was the only lawyer willing to bring cases against the Church in public instead of settling them quietly behind closed doors and allowing the cycles of abuse to continue. For that, the Church tried to have him disbarred. Twice.
  • Culturally Religious: Catholicism as a culture is so steeped within Boston that locals can't help but feel its influence. This complicates the Spotlight investigation because non-observant Catholic members are awed by the Church while lapsed members are enraged by it, so their ability to objectively look into the allegations is clouded. This is why those who grew up outside of the Boston Archdiocese, like Mitch Garabedian (a non-Catholic of Armenian descent) and Marty Baron (the son of Jewish immigrants who settled in Florida), are the most clear-eyed about what's going on.
  • Da Editor:
    • Subverted with Marty Baron, who is one of the most reserved people in the movie.
    • Ben Bradlee Jr., who is below Marty but above the Spotlight team in the chain of command, is a more traditional example.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The opening scene gives a little focus to a troubled-looking cop watching Geoghan be arrested and released due to pressure from the church and a district attorney long before Spotlight gets involved. It feels like he’s being set up as a future source but the man is never seen or mentioned again.
  • Determinator: Chasing lawyers across busy streets, digging through seemingly insignificant archives, and waiting outside court records rooms before they open are all in a day's work for Mike Rezendes.
  • Distant Prologue: The film opens in 1976 with a police station aiding the Catholic Church's cover-up of a child molestation case. The main events of the film start 25 years later in 2001.
  • Environmental Symbolism: Churches loom in the background of several scenes. A victim being interviewed actually lampshades this as he's talking to Sacha Pfeiffer.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Mike Rezendes is introduced having worked through a retirement party, showing his dedication to his job.
    • Our first introduction to Jerk with a Heart of Gold Mitchell Garabedian is him yelling at his secretary. Her reaction implies this isn't the first time, nor will it be the last.
    • An extremely subtle one with the establishment of Catholicism as a whole, as voiced by Pete Conley. When Marty Baron meets him at a charity gala, he says he's on the board of Catholic Charities, and they're very proud of the work they do in Boston. He's really high up in the local society and he's doing very well for himself personally, and he's vocalized his decision to ignore the indisputable fact that pride is one of the seven deadly sins. In other words everyone is obviously okay with that little bit of sin, as long as the Church as a whole is thriving. Clever, isn't it?
  • "Eureka!" Moment: After learning that statistically there should be around 90 pedophile priests in Boston, Rezendes suggests to Bradlee that they dig further, find more victims, get more names. Robby quickly realizes that this will take too long, and suggests that instead, they work backwards using the directories to find bad priests. By identifying those who are designated "sick leave" or similar, they come up with almost the exact same figure.
  • Exact Words: Played straight. Robby wanting to wait and do exactly what Baron said causes Mike to reach the Rage Breaking Point.
    Mike: What? Why are we hesitating? Baron told us to get Law. This is Law.
    Robby: Baron told us to get the system. We need the full scope. That's the only thing that will put an end to this.
  • Executive Meddling: In-universe. Soon after taking over as editor, Marty Baron tasks Spotlight with looking into the Father Geoghan lawsuit even though Robby points out that the team picks their own stories. However the team is in need of an interesting story at the time so they take the assignment without any objections.
  • Fauxshadow: There's a brief one about midway through the film. Sipe warns Rezendes that the Church will "try to silence anyone who speaks out. I'm sure they'll come after you and your team soon enough." Headlights pass by Rezendes' kitchen window, the phone goes dead, and — loud knock at the door! Fortunately, it's only Bradlee with a pizza.
  • Fish out of Water: Marty Baron has never spent time in Boston, and he's heading a newspaper where most of the staff is born and raised there. In contrast to the big personalities (most notably Robby and Rezendes) he's quiet and soft-spoken. He doesn't even like baseball. In Boston. Most notably, he's the first Jewish editor of the Globe, the subscriber base of which was 53% Catholic in 2002.
  • Foregone Conclusion: You know the Catholic Church had a sex abuse scandal, don't you?
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: As Sacha talks with Saviano in a restaurant, a TV in the background is showing a college football game. One of the teams involved is Penn State — another institution that famously failed to respond properly when it discovered that an assistant coach was sexually abusing minors.
  • From Bad to Worse: The story itself becomes uglier and uglier the more the group dig into it. First it looks like just two priests in Boston. Then a survivor comes forward claiming it's as many as 13. Then there's evidence that higher-ups in the Church actually knew. Then it looks like there's scientific evidence pedophile priests might be encouraged (and covered up) by the lifestyle enforced on them by the Church. Then it appears there are as many as ninety abusive priests in Boston. Then in the epilogue, after the initial article, the number of priests jumps to 250 following more victims the team had never heard about coming forward.
  • The Ghost: All of the pedophile priests save Geoghan and Paquin remain completely off-screen.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Mitch Garabedian. Tireless in battling against the Catholic Church on behalf of victims, but also Hot-Blooded, Married to the Job, and comes off as a bit of a Jerkass. Subverted with Marty Baron, who is unfailingly soft-spoken and polite.
  • Guile Hero: All of the protagonists are this to some extent, as their only weapon is their intelligence, but Garabedian stands out among them as the one who has spent the most time engaged in the legal Battle of Wits with the Church. See Loophole Abuse below for his standout moment.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Midway through, we are treated to a montage showing the main characters wading through the year books to collect all the priests' "sick leave" cases.
  • Heroic BSoD: After the story hits, Robby comes into the office on his day off expecting a wave of angry phone calls to the main switchboard. Instead, he finds the switchboard eerily quiet; most of their operators have been dispatched to the Spotlight office to answer calls from dozens of victims. Michael Keaton's stunned expression when he realizes that all the team's work so far has only touched the tip of the iceberg provides the film's striking last shot.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • One of the few knocks on the film's accuracy is the portrayal of Jack Dunn, the PR head for Boston College, as indifferent to the scandal when in fact he was active in efforts to protect his charges from sexual abuse. Dunn has spoken out against his portrayal (while praising the film generally), though Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer have defended it.
    • A minor one for the Church. It is true that these events did occur and there was indeed a cover-up; however, the film does gloss over the fact that the Church was receiving advice from psychologists who believed (as did many at the time) that the "rehabilitated" priests were safe to return to service. However, it should be noted that the psychologists were often in-house psychologists for the Church.note  Sometimes, the Church didn't even use psychologists or psychiatrists to treat offending priests, but rather general practitioners and the like. The fact is that the Church often failed to treat the molestation (including flat-out rape) of children as a big deal. So how much of a historical villain upgrade the film provides is at least open for debate.
    • It's played down with Cardinal Law, who is castigated for letting the abuse continue, but at the same time the film does acknowledge that he did champion civil rights in his youth, and the staff at the Globe commend him for his speech after 9/11 calling for tolerance.
    • The real Eric Macleish also recommends the film, even though his character is portrayed as much worse than he is in real life.
  • History Repeats: Ben Bradlee was editor of the Washington Post and oversaw Woodward and Bernstein's investigation into Watergate. Thirty years later, his son, Ben Jr., oversees the investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Adding onto this is the fact that Woodward and Bernstein's investigation had previously been adapted into a film in 1976, with Spotlight being considered a Spiritual Successor to it.
  • Hollywood New England: There is a whole lot of Pahk Ya Cah at Hahvad Yahd throughout the film.
    • This is a justified trope. Most of the victims come from poor, majority white areas in the Greater Boston Area. The accent most associated with this trope, i.e. the Southie/South Boston accent, is most prevalent in this demographic group.
    • Although, compared to so many other movies in recent years set and filmed in Boston to take advantage of the tax credits, it plays Boston so low-key as to almost subvert the trope. Rezendes's lack of an accent is noted below; Sacha admits that while her grandmother is from Southie she herself was raised in Ohio, explaining why she pronounces all her r's. And Robby and Mark don't have a pronounced accent either. Nor does the film indulge in ostentatious references to the Boston sports teams,note  play lots of Dropkick Murphys' songs on the soundtrack or gratuitous aerial shots of downtown and its landmarks.
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: The diocese's motion allows Garabedian to file an opposition brief to which he attaches all the documents the reporters have been seeking which prove Law was aware of the abuse years before, putting them in the public record.
  • Homage Shot: When Rezendes is finally able to get the Smoking Gun documents attached to Garabedian's response to the church's motion, the files with them are shown being put down on the desk by the court clerk from straight above—exactly the same way Woodward and Bernstein are shown receiving documents from the Library of Congress early in All the President's Men, a film to which Spotlight has often been compared.
  • Hope Spot: Garabedian gives Rezendes a tip that fourteen of the most damning sealed documents were previously attached to a motion he filed, but the Church has taken them from the public record. Rezendes then tells Robby that while the documents are not there, Garabedian can refile his motion and they'll get everything they need to run the story. Then they come into work the next day, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
  • Hot-Blooded:
    • Mike Rezendes is the most passionate member of the Spotlight team, and goes to the most extremes in the investigation.
    • Phil Saviano is zealous about fighting pedophilia, and can get emotional to a point where it puts others off, which is why no one listened to him before. He seems like a Tinfoil Hat conspiracy nut — until Sipe reveals that "thirteen priests" is inaccurate because it's way too low.
    • Mitchell Garabedian has been fighting the church for years and is clearly passionate about his work.
  • Ignored Expert: Various people (Garabedian the lawyer, Sipe the former priest, Saviano the Hot-Blooded activist) have been trying to draw people's attention to the abuse for years. Continually being ignored has left Saviano perpetually furious, and Garabedian extremely cynical about the chances of success.
  • Incoming Ham: Mitch Garabedian, and you don't even see him. "BILL! WHERE THE HELL ARE MY PAPERS! I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE THEM ON MY DESK!"
  • Intrepid Reporter: The Spotlight team from The Boston Globe is made out to be the spearhead of investigative journalism.
  • Irish Priest: Because we're in Boston, naturally. Many of the names that the Spotlight team uncovers are noticeably Irish.
  • Ironic Echo: "I couldn't get a tee time". Robby says this to Rezendes early in the movie as an explanation for why he isn't playing golf on Sunday as usual, all the while suggesting Rezendes shouldn't work so hard. Near the end, as he and Rezendes park next to each other at the Globe's offices on the day the story is published, Robby again reminds Rezendes it's a Sunday, leading Rezendes to kid him with the quote.
  • It's Personal: Carroll (the father of two young children who discovers a "treatment center" for paedophilic priests is one block away from his house) definitely gives off this vibe when the scandal is published and he personally goes to leave a first edition of the newspaper at the centre's front door. Downplayed, however, in that he doesn't try to actually confront the priests, nor have his own children been victims.
    • Also Robby when he discovers that one of the priests was the hockey coach at his high school, and he molested some of the players. It comes out in a very understated way during the interview with Dunn:
      I ran track, you played football. I guess we were just lucky.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mitch Garabedian is introduced screaming at his secretary and rudely turning Rezendes away from his office and generally seems to have a bad temper and poor people skills. Despite this, he is the ONLY lawyer in Boston willing to take a stand against the church and refuses to back down even when they've nearly disbarred them. This is best highlighted at the very end where he genuninely congratulates Rezendes on successfully revealing the scandal before putting on a cheerful face to comfort a recent child rape victim.
  • Karma Houdini: Cardinal Law gets promoted after covering up decades of child molestation.
  • Kicked Upstairs: It's noted in the epilogue that Bernard Law resigned from his position in the Boston archdiocese, only to be reassigned to a major basilica in Rome.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Garabedian. He's a cynical, bitter, grumpy middle-aged man who hasn't been married because he's "too busy" with his job. His job is trying to nail the Catholic Church for protecting pedophile priests that raped children and got away with it. As we see at the end of the movie, after the scandal breaks out, he just keeps going.
  • Long List:
    • The film ends with the statistics of the numerous articles written on the issue. It then goes on to show that similar cases were eventually exposed in cities around the world. That list of cities goes on for 4 screens listing 51 cities each for a total of 204.
    • Within the film, the list of protected pedophile priests the reporters uncover grows from around a dozen to almost a hundred.
  • Loophole Abuse: A major break in the story occurs because Garabedian cannot leak the documents which prove his case and implicate the Church because they are under court seal. However, the Church's counsel files a response to Garabedian's motion, which allows him to file his own rebuttal — and attach the documents as exhibits, which are then public record. The Church then steals the documents from the court file so he files the rebuttal again, allowing the Globe to get their hands on them.
  • Married to the Job:
    • Garabedian's rationale for why he never got married is because he is too busy and his work is too important.
    • It is suggested that this applies to Marty, too.
  • Must Have Caffeine: There is a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup on pretty much every desk in the film, reflecting the very real love for caffeinated beverages that many journalists have (and the extreme proliferation of Dunkin' Donuts in the Boston area). The real Matt Caroll told Brian D'Arcy James, who plays him in the film, that he drank a "heroic" amount of coffee while putting together the Church story. This also echoes All the President's Men where coffee is prominently featured and at one point becomes a minor plot device.note 
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Robby nearing the end of the film (for not reporting on it years earlier), he never outright verbalizes it, but his body language and facial expressions say it all.
  • My God, You Are Serious!: When Sacha, having prepared herself for hostility, evasiveness and a Battle of Wits, meets a priest who freely admits to "fooling around" with boys, but specifies it wasn't rape because he got no pleasure from it, it takes her a moment to process that the man actually believes what he's saying, and it's a while before she can stop gaping and recover her composure.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent:
    • Lampshaded when Garabedian tells Rezendes (played by Wisconsin-born Mark Ruffalo) 'You're from East Boston? You don't sound like it.' Followed by a long, awkward pause.
    • Justified with Robby. Michael Keaton was relieved to discover that Walter Robinson only has a slight Boston accent, since he saw mastering it as his biggest challenge in taking the role.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: In an inversion, Sacha meets a retired priest who has no problem admitting to molesting children, but insists it wasn't a sin because he felt no pleasure from the action.
  • Oh, Crap!: The reporters get a collective one as they obtain the Catholic directories that contain lists of all the priests, their current and prior assignments, and notes on their status. Opening just one, they find multiple instances — for multiple priests — of the code phrases used to reassign priests that have molested children, such as "sick leave", "unassigned", etc. After finding so many in just one volume, they all simultaneously stare in disbelief at the remaining fifteen to twenty volumes sitting on the shelf.
  • One-Word Title
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Walter "Robby" Robinson.
  • Parental Substitute: Both the reporters and the priests' victims discuss how filling this role in the lives of troubled young boys from broken homes allows the priests to gain their targets' trust.
  • Pedophile Priest: The focus of the story; notably, the priests themselves are mostly only alluded to, and rarely seen on camera. One exception is when Sacha meets Ronald Paquin, who casually admits that he "fooled around" with children, but rationalizes it as not being rape, which he himself experienced as a young boy (at the hands of another priest, it's implied).
  • Police Are Useless: The Boston police were well aware of what was going on, but they couldn't do much because the DA always refused to prosecute the priests they arrested.
  • Polite Villains, Rude Heroes: The Catholic church officials complicit in covering up the scandal are all charming smooth talkers who use their demeanor to convince others to go along with the lie. Most of all is Cardinal Law who comes off as a sweet and friendly grandpa even as he uses all his influence to protect child rapists in his own church. On the other hand, the ones working to expose the abuse and punish the priests are rather rude, abrupt and blunt. Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer representing the victims is introduced yelling at his secretary while Phil Saviano, the leader of a support group for victims of priest sex abuse comes off more as a conspiracy nut. This is deconstructed as the rougher nature of the heroes make it off putting and difficult for the Globe to report on their experience, while the charming villains make it easier for people to buy into their lies.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Sipes claims the priests he treated had the emotional maturity of preteens. The priest Sacha interviews, who was also a victim of the sexual abuse, behaves like an abused child who has internalized his mistreatment and honestly sees his actions as harmless.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Mike hits it after the editors decide to delay publication of the story so they can research more, even after all signs point to there being almost 90 abusive priests in Boston. He shouts, "They knew! And they let it happen! To kids! It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us!"
  • Real-Person Cameo:
    • The real Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer are visible in the stands at the Red Sox game about halfway through the movie.
    • The real Ben Bradlee, Jr. is seen listening to his fictional counterpart reporting on 9/11.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Garabedian tells Mike that an ex-priest came to him saying that he had seen Father Geoghan taking little boys up to his bedroom. When he reported it to the bishop at the time, he was threatened to be reassigned to South America.
  • Red Herring Mole: From the way he was behaving, Ben Bradlee Jr. looked like the guilty party who sat on the discarded evidence at the Boston Globe and was trying to cover it up. Turns out it was Robinson who dropped the ball on the story when it was brought up to him in 1993.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Rezendes is impulsive and passionate in contrast to the calmer, calculating Robby.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The film raises the question of why Jack Dunn and a lawyer showed up for the meeting Robbie had with the president of the Boston College when Robbie had asked him for a private meeting. The implication is that the college president had panicked and called them but throughout the interview he'd seemed open and forthright with the reporters, expressing belief that his predecessor at the College would have known about the abuse without being asked.
    • Why did Robbie not run with the story when he first heard about it as metro editor? Robbie himself can't remember because of how long ago it was and how much was on his plate.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: The Church's roots in Boston run extremely deep, and they take full advantage of it.
  • Shown Their Work: Several journalists have stated that this film absolutely nails the investigative journalism process. And the journalists portrayed were impressed with how on point their offices were recreated.
    • The real Walter Robinson, Michael Renzendes and Sacha Pfeiffer detailed how much the film got right about their work and mannerisms in a Globe article shortly after the film's release.
    • Most importantly, the discovery that Walter Robinson had been the editor of the Metro section of the Globe that had inadvertently buried Eric MacLeish's information in 1993 was made by the screenwriters while they were writing the script using the paper's actual database! Robinson's reaction in the movie is practically word-for-word what he said in real life when they told him.
  • Scenery Dissonance: One day, Marty Baron comes into work and the camera depicts this with a long shot to show what a beautiful September morning it is, something that is even acknowledged is the script. Then he enters the office, and the staff are watching a news report indicating that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.
  • Smoking Gun: A collection of sealed documents that reveal Cardinal Bernard Law knew about Father John Geoghan's abuse of children since the 1980s and did nothing about it.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Sacha is the only female member of Spotlight, and one of two named women in the Boston Globe.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The reporters rush towards the deadline to the tune of a children's choir singing "Silent Night."
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To the fifth season of David Simon's The Wire, in which the character of Thomas McCarthy (director of Spotlight) is portrayed as a fabricator who wins a Pulitzer thanks to unethical, self-serving journalism, while honest, traditional print investigative reporting gets sidelined.
  • Stunned Silence: When a psychologist says that roughly 6 percent of priests are pedophiles, the Spotlight team does some quick math and come up with a whopping 90 priests in Boston alone. The resulting silence is so long that the psychologist, waiting on the phone, asks if they're still there, but the only response the team can muster is "Uh—".
  • Team Title: More specifically, of a department in the Boston Globe staff.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Marty Baron comes into work and a staff member is watching CNN reporting that a plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York. He tells her to immediately bring everyone in.
  • Title Drop: At the very end, when Robby joins the rest of the team answering the constantly ringing tip line after the story is published.
  • Token Good Cop: Most of the Boston PD who know about the sex abuse have spent decades covering it up without much apparent introspection, although one rookie cop shows shock at this going on in the opening scene, and another officer cooperates with the media exposé into the scandal (albeit hesitantly).
  • Troubled Abuser: A particularly horrific example: One of the Pedophile Priests was himself sexually abused as a child, which is why he insists, in all sincerity, that what he did wasn't at all wrong.
  • Villain with Good Publicity:
    • Cardinal Bernard Law was very popular in Boston and remained so until the story broke. Interestingly, he's portrayed as not only publicly righteous, but a very amiable man in private which makes the accusations more shocking.
    • The Catholic Church in general has this. In the opening, which takes place in 1976, a bishop is reassuring a mother whose children were molested by Father Geoghan, and one of the things he is sure to mention is "how much good the Church does for the community." The glowing image of the church is what makes the extant of their crimes so shocking to a lot of people.
  • The Voice: Richard Sipe, the ex-priest turned activist who gives the Spotlight team a lot of good info about child abuse in the church, never appears on screen. He's only a voice on the phone (even his actor, Richard Jenkins, is uncredited).
  • Vow of Celibacy: Discussed by Richard Sipe, a clinical psychologist and former Catholic priest who's treated pedophile Catholic priests for decades. His theory is that celibacy has caused grave problems since many priests just can't abide by it. For many, this simply leads to clandestine relationships with adults. In others though they abuse children, who are vulnerable and easily controlled. The former group of priests can't and won't do anything about the latter, since they too have a secret that would hurt them if revealed. It's implied that he himself couldn't handle it, since he left the priesthood and is married to a former nun (who's another probable example).
  • Wham Line: While investigating, the team consults a former priest for more insight on who may have molested children. They're stunned when he says that their current number of thirteen priests is too low; it's actually about ninety. And they later find out that estimate was accurate almost to the last digit; when they go through the Catholic directories to identify priests who had been rapidly reassigned or listed as being on "sick leave," "unassigned," "treatment," etc., they come up with 87.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: One repeated motif is that various sources — attorneys, victims, activist groups — tipped off the Globe for years but were either blown off or given one-off articles without follow-up. Robby's forced to admit that he himself buried a similar story in the '90s.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The Spotlight team released over 600 stories about the Church sex scandal in 2002. Cardinal Law resigned from the Boston archdiocese in December 2002, and was re-assigned to one of the most influential Catholic churches in Rome.
  • Workaholic: Mike Rezendes.
    Robby: They call it a leisure activity. You should try it.
    Mike: I run.
    Robby: You run to work.
    Mike: Saves gas money.
    • Mitchell Garabedian is implied to be one as well; he outright states that he's Married to the Job.
  • Workplace-Acquired Abilities: Rezendes's earlier work as a cabby, alluded to early in the film, comes into play after he's able to get the letters, when he advises the cabby taking him back to the Globe office that he'll get there more quickly if he doesn't take I-93.