1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Spotlight: Headed for an Oscar?

Klaus Krämer/ db
February 26, 2016

A film doesn't necessarily need shootouts, crashes and car chases to keep the audience riveted. A biographical crime drama about a child sex abuse scandal unveiled by investigative reporters does the trick, too.

Filmszene Film Spotlight
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Foto: Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films/Paramount

Oscar Night on Sunday in Los Angeles may hold a surprise or two.

The film "Spotlight" - perhaps the best Hollywood movie on investigative journalism since the 1976 "All the President's Men" about the Watergate scandal - is nominated in six categories: "Best Picture", "Directing", "Actor in Supporting Role", "Actress in Supporting Role", "Writing (Original Screenplay)" and "Film Editing".

The film shines a light on the sex abuse of children and teens by priests. It's a topic that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church like no other, and since the 1990s, cases of abuse have increasingly emerged all over the world. Catholics have turned their backs on their Church by the hundreds of thousands: the priests' scandalous behavior pitched the Church into a crisis it has yet to recover from.

True story

How best to turn the explosive, complex topic of sexual abuse into a suspense movie that also gives people time to reflect?

Thomas McCarthy
Director Thomas McCarthy may win his first Oscar on SundayImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/D. van Tine

Director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, who co-wrote the screenplay for "Spotlight", opted for a true story - a veritable lesson in investigative journalism.

In 2001, the well-respected Boston Globe newspaper unveiled an unprecedented quagmire of abuse, cover-ups and intimidation of sex abuse victims by the Catholic Church in Boston, which is one of the largest Catholic cities in the US and the seat of the Archdiocese of Boston.

One of the most powerful bishops in the US, the Archbishop of Boston also holds the rank of Cardinal - which added to the problem.

Systematic, in-depth research

The story: new Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) read an article about how Cardinal Bernard Law, who at that time was Archbishop of Boston, did nothing to stop John Geoghan although he was informed about the priest's sexual abuse of minors.

Intrigued, Baron urged the paper's Spotlight team to investigate, a small group of experienced journalists specialized on stories that take months to research. The film accompanies the team of four, played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and John Slattery.

Film Scene from Spotlight
A scene from "Spotlight": Members of the Boston Globe researching the pedophilia scandalImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Foto: Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films/Paramount

Director Tom McCarthy shows how the protagonists tried to make their way through an almost impenetrable jungle of cover-ups and lies. How the reporters mainly relied on phone calls, researching court documents, visiting self-help groups and interviews with victims, witnesses and informants.

The film shows discussions in the newsroom, across desks piled high with papers and cumbersome old CRT computer monitors.

The latent threat by the powerful Catholic Church and its supporters to take the paper to court is palpable throughout while the audience witnesses the truth emerge, bit by bit.

The time and effort the Boston Globe and the Spotlight team put in were well worth it. A year after the paper exposed the pedophilia scandal, the US Bishops Conference approved stricter policies on responding to sexual crimes, including extended periods of limitation and a cleric's possible laicization. Thousands of victims claimed damages, and were granted more than two billion dollars by 2010. Overwhelmed by the payouts and legal fees, quite a few dioceses ended up filing for bankruptcy.

Award-winning coverage

John Geoghan, the priest who case first alerted the Boston Globe to the sex abuse scandal, was sentenced to prison in 2002 for the abuse of minors. The Archbishop of Boston disappeared to Rome after resigning for allegedly covering up the Church scandal in his archdiocese.

In 2003, the Boston Globe won the renowned Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the cover-up. And victims of sexual abuse by priests have come forward all over the world.

Skip next section Explore more