When I first watched Spotlight, I remember going into theater thinking there was going to be this big epic showdown between Michael Keaton and the highest-ranking priest of the Boston Catholic Church or something like that. A clearly defined enemy that would go toe-to-toe with Keaton and his “Spotlight” team throughout the film, threatening to impede their progress and destroy their journalistic reputation.
But no such figure exists in Spotlight. There isn’t a Catholic boogeyman lurking somewhere in Fenway Park, who has been spearheading this whole child sex abuse scandal for the past decades. Rather, it’s a collection of individuals who each individually made decisions throughout their lives and careers that could have brought this story to light earlier and ended this abuse, but instead acted in their own self interest. No one person is to blame, no major enemy or fallen hero at the root of this scandal and all its evils. It’s a collection of human beings, coming to the realization that they erred in not doing something, but trying to rectify their misdeeds in the fact that they still can do something.
There really isn’t a standout performance in Spotlight, except for maybe Mark Ruffalo whose character is the most colorful. But each character acts a dutiful building block to bring this story, both the film and the real-life article of the film itself, to life. It’s a miraculous journey to watch, not only these journalists at the top of their game, but individuals collectively coming together, putting aside past judgments or assumptions, and working on an end goal that isn’t easy but is right.
Tom McCarthy, the director and one of the writers of this film, actually played an inept, plagiarizing journalist on season 5 of The Wire. That season focused on how the police, press and city government use a fictional homeless scandal to meet their own respective ends. City government gets more funding, police gets more overtime, the newspaper gets some Pulitzers, all of them get behind some make believe because the embarrassment of the truth would be too damaging to their reputations.
In The Wire, we saw a scandal (the scandal being that there was no actual scandal) and a collective effort by everyone involved not to expose it but sweep it under the rug. Even though this scenario is fictional, it feels more realistic than the real-life events of Spotlight. That, despite best intentions and the realization that what they are doing is wrong, people will ultimately find any justification to further their own self interest.
There were plenty of reasons to stop the “Spotlight” story, plenty of times to turn the car around, head home and let this whole Catholic church scandal lie hidden off a dusty road. But they kept pushing on through the night, against their own self interest for the greater good, for those who don’t have as powerful a platform or as dedicated a readership to hear their message. You may not remember any of the characters’ names at the end of the film, but you will remember them as heroes.