A Spotlight On The Search For The TruthPosted: November 16, 2015
There is a great cinematic tradition of investigation films, stories of intrepid journalists and whistleblowers getting sucked into something much bigger than they can imagine at the outset. Films like All The President’s Men and The Insider are impactful and involving experiences, both in capturing the overwhelming nature of what the characters had to confront but also how relevant these true-life tales are to our society. Spotlight can proudly stand alongside classics such as these without question. Not only does it confidently dramatize an essential effort of investigative journalism, it also conveys the difficulty and ultimate heroism of challenging the very core of your community in pursuit of the only thing that truly matters: the truth.
Spotlight follows the reporters of the eponymous investigative team at the Boston Globe as they uncover evidence that Catholic priests have been molesting children in Boston for years and that the Church has been covering it up. And while we are all fully aware of the final results of that investigation, director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer do a tremendous job of structuring the story for maximum tension and unease anyway. There is still an excitement and satisfaction that comes with each new break in the case, for characters and audience members alike, that is only matched by the horror and sadness at what is learned. But what makes Spotlight such involving and intense viewing is not merely a question of narrative momentum. Rather, it is how well it confronts and exposes the findings of the investigation. McCarthy and company do not shy away at all from the sickening circumstances of this abuse; indeed, they present the victims’ accounts in such matter-of-fact terms as to underscore the banality of this particular evil. And “banal” really is the word for it, because when the reporters learn the extent of the abuse and the resulting cover-up, it’s hard to imagine the Church being shocked by any of it. All of this, of course, just makes it all the more infuriating and disappointing to watch.
The film then expands its scope even further, by considering the implications such a scandal has in the community. We see this through the eyes of the reporters themselves, who are all lapsed or casual Catholics to some extent or another. The Spotlight staff collectively represent what Catholicism often looks like in modern America: they go to Mass out of obligation to relatives or out of habit, or they don’t even practice their religion at all. And yet the Church remains a constant presence in their lives, because it is an integral part of their community. So when they discover this horrible truth about this omnipresent institution, they are still shocked and hurt by it. And from this perspective, the film is only scratching the surface of the spiritual impact of this story. Imagine what the devout Catholics felt when this came out about their Church. Imagine how the good Catholic kids felt when they were molested by an agent of their Church. The film forces you to consider all of this, and I defy anyone to not be shaken by the results.
It’s in this approach to character that the subtle intelligence of the film becomes clear. While we do spend time with the reporters to see how they relate to the Church and their community, this is the only way we get to know them personally. Their personal lives are only used to underscore the emotional impact that the scandal had on its community. In fact, every detail in the film is used solely to inform the audience of the full impact of this decades-long tragedy. It illustrates both how the community is scarred by this, but also how the community is responsible for it. We see how everyone in the Catholic Boston community enabled this conspiracy to continue unabated for years based on their faith not even in God, but in the Church’s importance in the community. Several people attempt to dissuade the Spotlight team by pointing out “all the good the Church has done in the community.” As if the Church couldn’t do those things unless they aided and abetted child molesters. It is infuriating and disgusting to watch, but also tragic and human. People look at institutions like the Church as unimpeachable societal cornerstones, and it is a monumental task, both intellectually and spiritually, to acknowledge that institutions like that are capable of such awfulness.
It is in establishing the fallibility of seats of power, and the unreliability of the community at large, that Spotlight illustrates the importance of journalism in modern society. By establishing the extent to which the community can obstruct or ignore the truth, McCarthy and Singer provide the perfect context for us to appreciate how essential this investigation was. Without these journalists, the full extent of this cover-up might have never come to light. Spotlight, like All The President’s Men before it, is a beautiful celebration of journalism and a challenge to all of us to question those in power. It is up to us to hold our institutions and authority figures accountable, and hard-hitting journalists and crusading lawyers mean nothing if we do not take the revelations they hand us and demand responsibility for them.
As well as McCarthy and Singer have crafted this story on the page and on the screen, they are also aided beautifully by a very talented cast. The big standout is obviously Mark Ruffalo, who turns in a chameleonic and impassioned performance as Mike Rezendes. But Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James all do great work as well, and along with with Ruffalo they make for an exciting and engaging collective lead. They capture the fury, the focus, the disappointment and the commitment that conveys both the heroism of their work and the spiritual frustration that it inspires. Additionally, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci providing great support to the core four leads, pushing them to do better and do it smarter every step of the way.
It took me awhile to get my thoughts together on Spotlight, but only because Tom McCarthy’s film is so layered and passionate while also being incredibly unassuming that it was a challenge to boil down how it worked so well. Spotlight is a nuanced portrait of both an investigation and a community, of how one is so essential to the other. It challenges all of us to hold the institutions of power accountable for how they use that power, and argues that no matter how painful the truth should never be denied. It is a powerful and intense film, not to mention a great one, and it should be seen as soon as possible.