Sometimes, years after the event, there is nothing better than a Hollywood film to summarise a real-life narrative that we are all painfully aware of. Films that take a scandal or a public crisis and tell the story from the inside or from another angle, if done well, can really do a public service in canonizing important moments in history. Or they can just make us feel bad…
Spotlight – headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and consisting of Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – is the quasi-independent investigative journalist department inside of the Boston Globe.
Usually left to their own intuitions about stories, the arrival of new Florida editor Marty Baron (Liev Schriber) points them in the direction of a recent claim by a lawyer who says that the Archbishop of Boston was aware of accusations of pedophilia amongst Catholic priests and did nothing to stop them. Initially working on the premise that they are following one bad priest, it quickly descends into an all-out investigation of the whole diocese (only stopping briefly for the inconvenience of 9/11).
Spotlight owes its entire existence to Robert Redford’s All The President’s Men. Both films have a small group of outsider/renegade reporters following revelatory tidbits of information that eventually exposes a systemic conspiracy of corruption of a major institution. The major difference however is that Spotlight is four decades older than President’s and the investigative journalist narrative has been refined almost to the state of self parody.
All clue-hunting journalist films (Zodiac, Shattered Glass, Frost/Nixon and even The Da Vinci Code) all follow the same formula: outsider reluctantly discovers unstoppable passion for the case; montage sequences of investigators reading boxes of documents throughout the night; male journalists drinking heavily to relieve the burden of Knowing The Truth…
The film is clearly a fairly principled presentation of the facts of the unraveling scandal, with most of the action set in law offices, courtroom libraries and newspaper editorial meetings. Yet, as gripping as this is as subject matter, the film loses some of its potential tension by not depicting any retaliation by the all-powerful church of which Spotlight are investigating. A lot of talk is spent explaining how the omnipotent church has used its mighty power to silence dissenters and viciously challenge survivors who try to speak out. Yet when The Boston Globe starts to root around, they just… find the information.
The power of Spotlight comes from its moral twist halfway through as it begins to focus the blame not just on the repugnant priests, but also on the surrounding culture that turned a blind eye. At one point a character suggests that, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one…”, which is itself a peculiarly Catholic expression of universal guilt to arise from such an objectively anti-Catholic (church) narrative.
The journalists at times use their exposés to reflect on their own faith (most are from Boston, and are lapsed Catholics), yet these scenes don’t inherently blame Catholicism for the genesis of the scandal, but the corruptibility of institutions. This humility is clearly tailored to an American audience, as from a European point-of-view it is telling that every time an Islamist does something horrific around the world there are universal calls for all Muslims to denounce their actions – yet the Catholic church seems to live in its own bubble and rarely shows admissions of guilt or apology.
Despite some of its flaws, Spotlight is an admirable attempt to tell a long-overdue important story that has fallen from prominence. And for that reason it should be widely seen and discussed so that the moral failings it portrays are consigned to another chapter of America’s dark history…*
*Although saying that, the final title-card punch in the gut explains how similar abuses were happening in almost all parts of the world.