‘Spotlight’ exalts the courage to crusade

“Spotlight” (2015). Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton, Jimmy LeBlanc, Richard O’Rourke, Gene Amoroso, Richard Jenkins (voice, uncredited). Director: Tom McCarthy. Screenplay: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. Web site. Trailer.

Crusaders come in many forms. Some are obvious, like those who fearlessly take up arms in the pursuit of justice. Those who rely on other tools, like the power of the press, are probably less known, though their contributions are certainly no less noteworthy. Such is the case for a group of courageous journalists whose investigative efforts helped bring about groundbreaking change, as depicted in the new highly acclaimed historical drama, “Spotlight.”

For many years, troubling rumors about sexual abuse involving Roman Catholic priests and underage parishioners had been bubbling to the surface of public awareness, but few, if any, details were substantiated. That all changed in 2001, however, when an intrepid team of reporters from The Boston Globe took on the story.

When newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) assumed the reins at the Globe, he suggested that the paper’s Spotlight team – the nation’s oldest continuously operating investigative reporting unit – look into the matter. But the idea initially received a somewhat guarded response. In part this was because Spotlight was accustomed to operating autonomously in picking the stories it covered. There was also genuine apprehension how the paper’s predominantly Irish Catholic readership would react to such potentially inflammatory reporting, an unsettling prospect for the publication’s bottom line at a time when newspaper subscription revenues were already in decline. And then there was concern about Baron himself, whose Jewish heritage led some to question whether his suggestion to purposely butt heads with the Church had some kind of agenda attached to it.

However, with Baron’s reassurances that the story would make for good, responsible journalism, the investigative team decided to proceed. Under the auspices of Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) began looking into the matter. Initial progress was slow, but, once doors began to open, the investigation exploded, becoming something much larger than anyone expected.

The team got one of its biggest breaks from attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a flamboyant, outspoken but doggedly committed victims’ rights advocate, who helped connect the Spotlight reporters with sources who were willing to go on the record about their experiences. And the closer the journalists looked, the more they found. In fact, the Spotlight team quickly discovered a widespread pattern of abuse – and an even more disturbing intentional campaign to cover it up.

Through the reluctant admissions of sources like attorneys Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) and Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), who quietly helped facilitate the settlement of numerous abuse cases involving priests, the Spotlight team found that the conspiracy permeated the Boston Archdiocese. And, given the breadth of this matter, it became obvious that there was no way those at the top, including Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), could have been in the dark about it.

With the publication of a series of articles in early 2002, the Globe exposed the scandal, shaking the Boston Archdiocese to its core and leading to Cardinal Law’s resignation. Revelation of this news sent shockwaves through the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, leading to the subsequent exposure of comparable cover-ups around the globe. And, for its efforts, the paper won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. That’s quite an impressive legacy for an investigation that almost didn’t get off the ground.

When a bombshell story like this finally gets told, many are not only astonished at the nature of the disclosures, but also at why it took so long for such news to come to light. So why did this happen? To look for an explanation, we must examine the beliefs of those involved, because, as the basis of the conscious creation process – the means by which our reality materializes – they determine how matters ultimately unfold.

For instance, as becomes apparent in the film, many of the faithful willingly turned a blind eye to the indiscretions. Some feared the power wielded by the Church and its representatives, while others believed that the Archdiocese and its minions – as the bestowers of God’s will – could do no wrong. This was even true for some of the victims (Michael Cyril Creighton, Jimmy LeBlanc), many of whom came from broken homes and trusted their parish clerics implicitly. When the priests showed them the kind of compassion they didn’t receive from their own families, they freely expressed their gratitude by complying with whatever was asked of them, no matter how questionable they may have found the requests.

When no one is willing to talk about such incidents, however, stories like this tend to stay buried. That’s where the value of the reporters’ efforts becomes so important. As firm believers in uncovering the truth, investigative journalists are willing to pursue it, no matter how unseemly it may be. They have the courage to dig up the facts, go on the record and state explicitly what happened.

Of course, to be able to do their jobs effectively, reporters require the assistance of sources who share their values regarding the truth and who possess the courage to reveal it. For the victims who came forward and provided information for the Globe articles, their ability to overcome their fears and speak their truth is undeniably heroic. Their efforts often necessitated a fundamental shift in their beliefs, but their candor was rewarded with an even more profound change in the nature of the prevailing reality.

In addition to courage, discernment plays an equally important role in scenarios like this. For members of the press, this figures largely in the beliefs they employ in their work, especially when it comes to knowing where to look and what to look for. And, because of that, this is where the influence of intuition is felt strongest, for it aids significantly in belief formation, particularly when it comes to separating the credible from the implausible. Unfortunately, we don’t always heed it, which can seriously dilute the effectiveness of our powers of discernment. Indeed, even the most seasoned investigators sometimes fail on this point, as one Globe staffer is forced into reluctantly admitting in hindsight during the course of the investigation; had that error in judgment been previously avoided, the story may have been uncovered long before it finally was, potentially sparing numerous victims years of abuse.

Discernment tends to function best when employed in conjunction with integrity. Without the influence of this additional component, it’s possible to twist what we believe to be judicious discernment into erroneous assumptions, leading to potentially questionable actions and distressing outcomes. This explains, for example, why one priest in the film sincerely believes he didn’t do anything wrong because his indiscretions didn’t involve engaging in particular types of sex acts, activities that he considered essential for his behavior to legitimately constitute abuse. Likewise, foggy discernment also sheds light on the rationalization behind the victims’ capitulation to their abusers’ whims; beliefs that their unconditional compliance would somehow translate into unqualified salvation sadly leads to profoundly painful experiences, not to mention the lingering anxiety that follows them.

Being honest with ourselves, then, is crucial if we’re to manifest the reality we truly desire, not one in which we blindly conform (or in which we willingly give away our personal power). Beliefs are incredible sources of empowerment, for they shape what materializes in our existence. We should never lose sight of that, even when confronted with those who would attempt to coerce us – or even if there are champions like the Spotlight reporters to come to our rescue.

“Spotlight” is a meticulous chronicle of the Globe’s heroic efforts, recalling such classic newspaper movies as “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Zodiac” (2007). Its solid though occasionally plodding narrative methodically details the team’s exploits, including the challenges associated with carrying on when faced with stonewalling sources and the need to juggle reporting resources for covering breaking news stories (like the 9/11 attacks, which came in the midst of Spotlight’s investigation). After a somewhat slow opening 30 minutes, the film takes off, working best when the reporting team is out in the field, interviewing sources and uncovering leads. The picture’s capable ensemble delivers with earnest, committed sincerity, despite a dearth of meaningful character development outside the workplace.

Because of the film’s powerful message, it’s bound to be a strong awards season contender, with some calling it the early favorite for best picture honors. “Spotlight” has already earned three Golden Globe Award nominations (best dramatic feature, director and screenplay) and two Screen Actors Guild Award nods for best cast and for Rachel McAdams’s supporting actress performance. In addition, the film has captured four Independent Spirit Award nominations (best feature, director, editing and screenplay) and has been named winner of the competition’s Robert Altman Award, presented to the picture’s director, casting director and ensemble cast. More accolades in other contests are sure to follow.

Knights in shining armor – be they dressed in traditional garb or more contemporary apparel – are undoubtedly valuable allies to have in our corner, as the work of the Spotlight team proves. But, to protect ourselves in the absence of such heroic figures, we would be wise to examine our beliefs (especially those associated with fear, courage, discernment and integrity), for they will loom largely in the reality we ultimately experience. Making it a practice to purposely become our own crusaders could serve us well when faced with circumstances that could potentially cause us great harm, allowing us to rise above the fray and flourish.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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