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All the Cardinal's men.note 

"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?"

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 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:

  • Adult Fear: Matt Carroll, who is a father of two young children, is clearly the most affected by reporting on the story. It gets worse when he finds out that a treatment center (or, a group home for priests who have been caught molesting children) is one block away from his house. He tapes a photo of the treatment center to his fridge with a note warning his kids to stay away. As the real Matt Carroll wrote, that part was 100% true (the only difference being that he actually had four children at the time), and the scene was filmed in Carroll's real West Roxbury neighborhood.
  • 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 Robbie 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.
  • Based on a True Story: With some elements condensed.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 somewhat relapsed 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Robbie 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 Robbie 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?
  • 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. Each discovery is seen as even more unbelievable than the last.
  • 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 Jerk Ass. 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 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.
  • 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 coverup; 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. Although, it should be noted that the psychologists were often in-house psychologists for the Churchnote . 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.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 teamsnote , 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.
  • 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 too low.
  • 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. "SHARON! 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.
  • 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 re-assigned to a major basilica in Rome.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: Garabedian. He's a cynical, bitter, grumpy middle-aged man who hasn't got 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 multiple screens listing at least 40 cities each.
    • 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 exhibit, 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 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. 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.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Robbie 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 with 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 "Robbie" 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.
  • Raised Catholic: All the Spotlight reporters describe themselves as lapsed Catholics when they interview Phil Saviano near the beginning of the movie. The investigation doesn't do much to strengthen their faith. Sacha, the most practicing of the four, stops going to Mass with her grandmother after it becomes difficult to not picture the victims while at services
  • 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.
  • 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 Robbie.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: To All the President's Men, which was also about a group of investigative reporters who exposed one of the biggest scandals in American history. For bonus points, both involved someone by the name of Ben Bradlee (the sex abuse investigation actually involved his son, Ben Jr.). The only major difference, aside form subject matter, is that All the President's Men came out just two years after Richard Nixon resigned from office, while Spotlight came out 13 years after the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal came to light.
  • 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 psychologist, still on the phone, asks if they're still there after a long silence, but even then the reporters can only barely find any words.
  • Team Title: More specifically, of a department in the Boston Globe staff.
  • Title Drop: At the very end, when Robbie joins the rest of the team answering the constantly ringing tip line after the story is published.
  • 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 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).
  • 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 "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. Robbie'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.
  • 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.

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