Spotlight (the film starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, and others) was released last November, almost a year ago. No one’s been waiting with bated breath for my take but I just-just saw it and I’m moved to share what a riveting piece of film history I think it is.
The film follows the activities of a team of Boston Globe journalists (the small Spotlight team of investigative journalists that would ultimately win a Pulitzer for their reporting, working for months and years at a time on a single story) as they dig in to the church’s cover-up of pedophile priests in the Boston area. And while Boston was the nexus of their story, we’ve since seen (and they worked to prove) that this is a story with global implications given the systemic nature of the cover-up. What Spotlight and the story that inspired it also revealed is how a centuries old institution relies on the goodwill and sometimes complicity of the community it serves – we’re talking thousands of children, twice as many parents, and the community around them. When something becomes so pervasive, it becomes normalized, and what the Globe did in refusing to look the other way as so many others had, is insist that this was not normal and needed to be called out. They weren’t on a crusade against the church, but rather on a crusade to unearth and report the facts of the situation – through hurdles thrown up by the church, the legal system, and the community.
It’s fair to say that while I was never really an investigative journalist, Spotlight appealed to the media nerd in me. I was as riveted by the process of carefully building the pieces of a story that resists being told as by the performances and the real life crime that inspired this story. It’s the kind of journalism we need more of, the kind of journalism that’s happening less and less as we rush to be first, if inaccurately and inarticulately. It’s a reminder that investigative journalism is as much about the investigative part (the leg work, the research, the digging) – cue montages of reporters knocking on doors, pouring over library documents, negotiating access to court records, coaxing the story out of reluctant sources etc. – and that that takes time, and is often tedious. This kind of journalism is a dying art – the funds aren’t committed to it, reporters are expected (and this is more in-tune with my experience) to divide their attention between several different stories and leads for other stories (quantity not quality) at once (no time to be a dog with one particular bone), and the attention deficit news cycle demands much more urgency (check the facts later, or facts what facts) – which is not to say that there is no urgency with this type of marathon investigation, the story could be derailed at any point and the victims at the center of it are impatient to have their story told even in the face of 9/11 which temporarily put this investigation on hold, but there also has to be a fair amount of patience to get the story fully so that it can have the greatest impact.
I like this film for its reminder that media’s first obligation is not to special interests but to the story and to the community (to digging up the truth and speaking for those without the platform to speak for themselves) even if the information being served to said community goes down like bitter medicine, even if the power-wielding institutions (the government, the church, big business, big pharma, big sports, all the bigs) would rather it not be told. It is a window to the kind of journalism that requires courage. The filmmakers could be accused of idealism in their take on crusading journalists but it wouldn’t stick, not just because it shows that some of these journalists initially did drop the ball and that some picked it up reluctantly, but because this did happen, and this story is still alive…and still the full has not been told.
I just really like that the story (perhaps this generation’s All the President’s Men – which I’m aware of, of course, but can’t say I’ve ever watched, first frame to last) showed the nuts and bolts of the process…and what’s at stake. What was at stake in Spotlight was transparency and vindication for the many, many, many (many, many, many, many, many) boys and girls abused by the Catholic Church. In the telling, it neither sensationalized nor sanitized the nature of the abuse – giving the staggering numerical scope of the scandal while rendering just a handful of compelling examples with a careful balance of matter-of-factness and sensitivity.
One example is Patrick who spoke to one of the journalists about being taken for ice cream by the priest who had come to counsel his family after his father’s death – his mom had mental illness, and it seems clear that in such a situation the children would have been floundering, and as a result of that, vulnerable. Patrick recalled the priest’s hand creeping up his thigh and the ice cream running down his hand. It was powerful in part because of the actor Jimmy LeBlanc’s restrained yet intense delivery. He didn’t seem like an actor but like an actual abuse survivor. So much so, I felt inclined to look him up – and it turns out he is an actor, a local actor (and steel metal worker), hired as much for his authentic Boston accent and the Boston realness he could bring to the role as his acting skills; he also had a small role in Gone Baby, Gone, likely for similar reasons. But I thought he brought more to the performance than that. I’d like to see more of him.
That said, even with strong performances all around, including McAdams getting the rapid patter of Sacha Pfeiffer’s speech right, I don’t understand why any one was singled out for acting awards as Ruffalo and McAdams were with their supporting actor Oscar nominations, as this was more of an ensemble piece. So kudos especially for the ensemble wins (Independent Spirit, Screen Actors Guild) as each performance made the film whole.
Spotlight is not in that sense a great character piece – though it is in some ways about character. It’s a process film with gravitas and relevance. If such a thing can be enjoyable, I have to say it was quite an ‘enjoyable’ film. It makes sense to me that its two wins at the Oscars were for writing and best picture – and I would have given a nod to the editors for the visual pacing of the film – those were the right wins for a story that leaned on story and was about story and the impact it can have.
I’ll end with this panel featuring the actual journalists from the film:
Article by Joanne C. Hillhouse, who, full disclosure was raised and still identifies as Catholic but who thinks this airing out of dirty laundry is long overdue – also as a journalist, a writer, and person walking the earth. Feel free to reblog with link and fresh press (please do) but Do not re-publish without permission and credit. Click the links for my books and/or my services.