If you have listened to any stand-up comics in the last few years, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard some sort of joke about priests and pedophilia. It’s become an easy terrain to mine for laughs; even Catholic comics have no problems telling jokes about this subject. Making jokes about something horrific is nothing new; for a lot of people it’s a way to cope with some truly terrible things in the world. You laugh so you don’t cry.
But it wasn’t so long ago that the sex abuse allegations against members of the clergy wasn’t a punchline, but something that was whispered about behind closed doors. It wasn’t discussed openly and many of the victims suffered in silence. There was perhaps an informal network that warned kids about certain priests and their proclivities, but mostly it was an issue that was ignored and there was no substantial effort to hold anyone accountable. Most people probably assumed that there were a few isolated incidents, but had no idea of the actual scope of the abuse. It was too much of a shake to their faith to consider otherwise – that this was a widespread problem that not only did the church know about, but were actively covering up.
That all changed in 2001, when a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe Set out to shine a light on the dirty little secret of not only Boston, but of cities across the nation. Spotlight is the compelling story of their methodical quest for the truth and is easily one of the best movies of 2015. Since the viewers already know the outcome of their investigation, Spotlight is really something of a detective story where we witness how the Globe team was finally able to put all the pieces together to make a case so compelling that people could no longer ignore the facts. The ultimate outcome of Spotlight may not be a surprise, but the painstaking process of investigating the story in and of itself is fodder for a fascinating (and slightly heartbreaking) movie.
It doesn’t hurt matters that Spotlight is gifted with a murderer’s row of actors; when you have Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup at your disposal, you have to try pretty hard to create a lackluster movie. The performances across the board are truly outstanding; this may be the best work of Rachel McAdams career and Michael Keaton continues to prove that his performance in last year’s Birdman was not a fluke. Ruffalo and Schrieber are also mesmerizing in their quietly understated performances.
Restraint is really the key word for this movie; Spotlight resists the urge to create false drama and the plotting is deliberate. Thought the subject matter that they are covering is sensational, the film is more about the process of uncovering the story than the story itself. That is not to say that the victims are irrelevant in this film – there are some heartbreaking scenes where the Spotlight team hears the stories of those who have been abused – but the main narrative of Spotlight is reporters doing their jobs and the difference that can make. Unlike another great film about the newspaper business (All The President’s Men), there are no key informant meetings ins shadowy parking garages. There are no menacing characters waiting for the investigators to convince them that it is in their best interest to walk away. Instead, there are a team of dedicated reporters who do a lot of old fashioned shoe leather investigating to slowly peel back all the layers of this story. I don’t know how they made the creation of spreadsheets so damn fascinating, but you can’t turn away from Spotlight.
It’s also worth noting that the film also goes out of its way to not make these journalists heroes. Unlike a lot of issue movies, they are not depicted as the lone wolves that ride in and save the day or people that struggle with their personal demons as they investigate. They are just people that are good at their jobs and though while they are created as fully realized three-dimensional characters, their personal lives are rarely mentioned. Ruffalo’s character is going through trouble in his marriage, but that is more of an aside than a pivotal plot point. In fact, Spotlight makes sure to take the time to ask why the Globe didn’t tell this story sooner. The answer is not the result of subterfuge or conspiracy, but the very believable consequence of human error. The writers of Spotlight recognized that this is not a plot that needs any additional juicing or ramping up of the drama. Because of that, I think the film rings all the more true and is all the more fascinating to watch.
Some other thoughts:
- Like just about every movie that is set in Boston, there is the obligatory scene at Fenway Park. That’s probably the only flaw of this film 😉
- Perhaps the most sobering part of the whole film is the end, where they list all the cities where there have been sex abuse scandals involving the Church; because they are listed alphabetically, my hometown of Albany, NY has the dishonor of being first.
- There is nothing worse in a film than a terrible Boston accent, so I give them credit for sidestepping that landmine altogether.
- I think the film does a very nice job of setting the scene in Boston – not just the physical depiction of the city and its landmarks, but the mood of the city as well and how this case was a real crisis of faith for a lot of residents. The Catholic Church is important in a lot of cities, but perhaps none as much as Boston.
- Newspapers are a dying business, but Spotlight is an excellent reminder of the power that they can have. In this 24 hour news world where having the story first is often more important than getting the story right, this film makes a compelling case for the need of deliberate and thorough investigative journalism. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen at newspapers – the popularity and influence of the podcast Serial has proven that – but they are the outlet that has the strongest tradition of this kind of research.
Spotlight is about an upsetting subject and is a reminder of what happens when institutions become too powerful and beyond reproach, but it ultimately isn’t as an emotionally punishing movie as you might anticipate. A film about the systematic cover-up of the rape of small children may not seem like the most relaxing way to spend a night at the theater – especially around the holidays – but the story is told in such a no-nonsense and straightforward manner that despite its subject matter you are left with the hope that truth will eventually be found if people are willing to put the work in to find it. My heart hurt for all the victims across the globe, but Spotlight is also a reminder that even the most sacred and powerful of institutions can be held accountable for their actions. The stellar cast and trust in telling this important story in an unembellished or unnecessarily dramatized way results in an extremely powerful movie. As soon as I walked out of the theater after seeing Spotlight, I was compelled to call my family and tell them that they had to see it to. Spotlight will deservedly be in the Oscar conversation this year.