“They say it’s just physical abuse but it’s more than that, this was spiritual abuse.”
I wrote a piece tracing the obvious parallels between All the President’s Men and Spotlight, two films that I could easily see both shaking the very framework of American society through their very candid portrayal of journalism. When actually getting to see Spotlight the connections became even more prominent. Our narrative begins, not in Washington D.C., but in Boston Mass, 1976. It even goes so far as having a Ben Bradlee connection. Bradlee Sr. worked with Woodward and Bernstein while the Big Throat story was breaking. Of course, numerous years later Bradlee Jr., continuing the family profession, was working at the Boston Globe and becoming an integral part of what was going on there.
But enough with similarities, this film, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, deserves its own personal set of commentary. Spotlight is the investigative unit of the Globe and as such their work is not for the quick news flash, but grinding out long, detailed stories, although at times it takes a while to latch onto a juicy tidbit.
However, a new, rather stiff editor named Marty Baron points the team towards a story where a lawyer is accusing a local Cardinal about doing nothing after he found out a local priest was sexually abusing children. It’s a problematic scenario that deserves a little more time, but at this point, it’s an isolated event. It’s one man’s evil. One man doing nothing to remedy an outlier in the Catholic Church.
What follows is as troubling as it is imperative storytelling. The members behind the Spotlight team are not arrogant, self-righteous people, or figure pointers, only truth seekers. That’s their job, after all. The cast is well rounded and credible while no one figure steals the spotlight, literally. Michael Keaton is their leader “Robby” who has close ties with the community even going to high school across the street. Mark Ruffalo is the integral member Michael Rezendes who not only writes the story but has the important task of trying to needle a local attorney for information and documents that can blow the story wide open. Meanwhile, Sascha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams) carries out numerous interviews of her own in this multiple-pronged assault for the truth.
Their investigation looks to victim organizations, lawyers, priests, and a psychotherapy specialist. If it’s not obvious already, Spotlight makes it painfully clear that this is not a story of a few isolated incidents but an entire epidemic. This is the whole country — the whole world. It makes you positively squeamish and it’s perturbing in its brutal honesty. There’s no way for it to be sanitized and that’s indubitably frightening. We should be angry, we should be grieved, it should be abrasive to our senses.
It’s bringing to light an entire conspiracy of corruption. There are no paper trails, evidence is swept under the rug, and person upon person remain tight-lipped either due to guilt or shame. Humanity is drawn to darkness, but we want things to be brought to light. It’s the dissonance of what it is to be a person — the constant battle going on in our own human hearts. This isn’t meant to be about individual finger pointing, but an indictment of a system. An indictment of what we all are capable of. If it’s not being able to maintain the celibacy requirement, then it’s a pastor addicted to pornography, or a man sleeping with someone else’s wife. They’re different scenarios, but the people behind them are all similarly broken.
With the narrative of Spotlight cataclysmic events such as 9/11 shift focus, but they cannot fully distract from the bleeding that is still going on behind the scenes. There’s still a need to get to the root of the problem and they do. Mark Ruffalo’s character talks about having some deep down inclination that he will one day go back to the church and then came the day that all that came crashing down as they prepared to break the story. All his hopes went unrealized. It has to be an abysmal feeling. These are folks living in a secular world and a Church that falters so greatly is of little comfort. God is a distant deity, not a personal one, so it seems.
When the story hits the pavements you know that all hell is going to break loose, but what really happens is that all the pain, suffering, and shame has finally received the spotlight it deserves. The major realization is not that one person is the problem or even that another person is the problem. But the most frightening revelation Spotlight offers up is that we’re part of that problem. That’s tough news to swallow and this is a film that does it with immense credence and poise. Perhaps the toughest moments of the film come when the lights have died down and we see the staggering numbers of just how many cities were rocked by similar scandals. If you’re like me you see cities that are all too familiar. A film of this magnitude begs for some kind of response from its audience. It’s up to the viewer to decide what that will be — whether social, spiritual or something else entirely.
This is a potent film of the highest nature that lifts up journalism as a noble profession, while simultaneously rocking its audience with a real-life narrative of substantial magnitude. I’m not one prone to bloated statements, but this just might be the best picture of the year. Its impact has been duly noted.