dir: Tom McCarthy
It might seem a bit unnecessary to review Spotlight at this late stage because, surely, this far into 2016, what does it really matter anyway?
Oh. Wait. Yeah, now I remember. This flick, which was probably only watched by members of the Academy and every journalist that still carries a torch for the nobility and doggedness of their profession (in other words, all of them) somehow managed to somehow win Best Picture.
Surely that counts for something, right?
I find it incredibly hard to believe that enough members of the Academy saw this in order to vote in numbers for it to achieve a plurality of votes over the other contenders. If anything the flick tries so hard to be downbeat that it’s almost an anti-movie. Sure, the actors wear makeup and act all over the place, but it’s really trying to show just how unglamorous the profession was way back in the dim, distant days of the year 2000.
It’s funny that this is essentially a period piece. What is less funny is that this film set at the beginning of the new millennium is about the systematic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests with the Catholic Church’s knowledge stretching back through the decades. And, let’s face it, probably centuries.
When I use the term ‘funny’, and I will use it at least a few times more throughout the review, sprinkled through like cracked pepper, rest assured that I am using it in the context of ‘how bizarre’ rather than ‘oh, that makes me laugh and laugh’.
As the flick starts off (well, the actual start is an even earlier example of how the pigs and the Church in Boston conspire to prevent prosecution of kiddie fiddling priests), the journos at the Boston Globe are in danger of getting sore arms from patting each other and themselves on the back for being such wonderful fearless journalists, and for working at Boston’s paper of record. As the paper of record, they regard themselves and are regarded as an important institution in Boston’s firmament.
Still. Like, even in 2000. The tubes of the internets hadn’t yet rendered physical papers almost obsolete, ad / classified revenue hadn’t skedaddled entirely. People still needed to wrap fish and chips with something.
The journos are not flashilyy dressed. Their office is just an office, and a fairly dowdy one at that. The part of the office most relevant to this flick, being the area allocated to the Spotlight team, looks to be the size of a phone box, pretty much. Its décor at best could be described as sub-IKEA.
But that’s not important. I mean, it is important in the sense that they’re deliberately trying to show that ‘real’ journos aren’t working in exquisite skyhigh Central Park West offices overlooking the teeming masses of the great unwashed below, idly typing their columns as editorial assistants spoon caviar into their gaping maws. They’re just knockabout, unglamorous, beer drinking salt of the earth types just trying to do their job.
The film’s title, and the Spotlight team’s purpose at the paper is as the paper’s investigative section; the small group of committed and solid journos with the free pass to pursue stories for months (that might go nowhere) with the intention and the scope to really uncover the kinds of stories other sections or papers just don’t have the time or inclination for.
To put it somewhat glibly, it’s the section of the paper that earns the paper its awards. To put it differently, it’s the section that gets the big stories that would otherwise never be uncovered, to the detriment of the city and the people who call it home.
That which most concerns the Spotlight team as the story begins is the imminent arrival of a new managing editor, in the form of Marty Baron (Liev Schriber), who is as soft spoken and unemotional a guy as a Vulcan would mock for being too chilled out.
Baron’s supernatural calmness belies his instincts when it comes to what he thinks the big story the Spotlight team should be pursuing is. No-one else can see it. They completely have a fundamental blindspot about it as he enunciates what he wants.
Their incredulity gradually morphs into confusion: You want what?
What Baron is saying: there seems to be something shady going on to do with the Catholic Church’s actions regarding these sexual assaults on kids.
What the Spotlight team, the other editors and journalists of the Boston Globe, the archdiocese, the people of Boston, the cops, the great and powerful of the establishment keep hearing is: You want to punch all of the Boston Celtics and the Pope in the nuts and ban St Patrick’s Day forever?
For this ‘hilarious’ opening bit, all the journos are almost doing that quizzical dog thing of tilting their head to the side and going “Hrrrrrrmm?” No-one questions the Catholic Church in Boston. No-one wants to touch that issue with a 40 foot barge pole covered in other barge poles and shamrocks. None of the people at the Boston Globe want to even consider it because it’s just so far outside the ken of their human understanding.
Mind you, these are journos and editors, hacks, in other words, of vast experience and skill. Their position is neither out of a desire to protect a church that most of them have abandoned throughout their lives, nor is it out of ignorance.
Perhaps they overplay that initial reluctance, but low-level opposition continues throughout the movie, as the journos start doing that thing that journos are supposed to do – pursue the story regardless of how much shoe leather they expend and despite all obstacles in order to uncover a great story.
The head of the Spotlight team Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) doesn’t believe in the story either. He’s as much a part of the establishment as any of the other jerks he constantly lunches, dines or goes to the baseball with. Everyone is telling him there’s nothing to see here, and he is prone to believing it.
They (the ubiquitous “they) keep telling him there’s no story, and the only reason Marty Baron is pushing this is because he’s a Jew, he has no family, and he isn’t from Boston. Even the son of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee, famous for the being the head honcho at the Washington Post when Woodward and Bernstein did their sweet thang with Deep Throat and Watergate and all that hoo-hah, Ben Bradlee Jnr (John Slattery) seems like he’s pro-Church and anti-journalism, pretty much all the way throughout the film.
But the team, consisting of three other seasoned journalists, and their fearful leader, start their investigation small, and just start digging away at a giant wall of sand, with little idea of what they’re going to uncover.
See, there’s nothing new, unfortunately, about the existence of wretched scumbags among the clergy who molest children. Instances of it, when they come out, are shocking and horrible and all the things they’re meant to be. It’s also, again unfortunately, a quintessential dog-bites-man story for the papers, probably even for Boston papers. The bigger, far more tremendous issue is something like what they discovered here, something so unthinkable but so obvious that you wonder how it took so long to reveal.
To put it in some kind of reverse perspective, it’s similar to what happened in Britain with the bloody BBC and what it did for monstrous maggots like radio personality Sir Jimmy Saville. That Saville committed rapes is a deplorable and awful thing. That the BBC covered up these assaults, from the first to the last, paid off victim’s families with hush money, and basically created an environment where this piece of shit could continue perpetrating his crimes for decades and decades, and completely get away with it without once being prosecuted (instead actually being knighted), is far, far worse. It was an organisational conspiracy of such monstrousness that even I, as someone who’s enjoyed the Beeb’s programming for decades, think that the fucking place should be burnt to the ground, and that the earth should be salted afterwards, to ensure nothing can grow at those studios ever again.
And why does it happen? Because the pieces of shit in charge put THEMSELVES first. The revelation of one of their presenters being a rapist predator coming out must be squashed because it will reflect badly on them. Any institution is just a place with a name and several buildings and a bunch of money. They safeguard themselves and their positions by doing everything in their power to hide the crimes, to blame the victims, to pretend some kind of moral highground is theirs.
Now take that, and multiply the number of perpetrators to the hundreds, and the number of victims to the thousands, and there you have, ladies and gentleman, I present to you, the modern day Catholic Goddamn Church. The scale of it is almost inexplicable, but the clear indictment remains that something like this doesn’t continue for decades and centuries unless enough people are convinced to look the other way or to never be too curious about it, by default along it to carry on.
Spotlight has the journos do the old fashioned investigative stuff, stumble upon a few things, have others handed to them, but it’s with (mostly) gentle persistence that they get all the myriad facts and timelines and such together in order to be able to represent the magnitude of what happened, what should never happen again, what will probably happen again as long as the Catholic Church, the oldest corporation on the planet, is allowed to do its dirty work with impunity.
The journos can’t quite believe it all, even as they’re the ones excavating this horrible conspiracy, but there’s also this lingering feeling like maybe someone at the Globe knew about all this stuff too, decades previous, and not only failed to follow it through, but actively spiked any investigation. The film keeps kinda implying that it’s one of the people close to Robertson (my money was on a certain silver-haired fox who used to be so dashing on Mad Men), but the very low key reveal is almost shocking in its banality.
It also layers the narrative in terms of laying blame on all parties, because it shows someone doesn’t have to be a lacky of a powerful institution in order to take actions (or not) that advance its interests.
You can’t be blamed for stuff you don’t know was happening. You can and should be blamed if stuff was happening and you chose not to know about it, just as Cardinal Pell tried to peddle at that recent commission in March where he stated that he chose not to know what one of the priests got up to in his diocese. This is the quote about this I love the most : “It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me.”
Don’t you just love that? That ability to know something bad is happening, but to be able to not know about it simultaneously, just in case you’re ever called upon to give testimony? Don’t you wish you possessed this gift as well, an absolute desire to protect an institution at all costs from the cries of its victims? The level of cognitive dissonance is just staggering. It beggars belief, and seeing it teased out here is both fascinating and gut-wrenching.
All the key players, except for Ruffalo in his ‘big’ scene, where he contorts his face and yells like he’s trying to out-Pacino Pacino, do a tremendous job not only embodying working journalists, but keeping things low-key at all times. They are shown in their mundane workplace and at their mundane homes and apartments, or going to church, chatting with their grandmothers, all the stuff you generally don’t get to see (mostly because it’s so goddamn boring).
Their method of getting the goods is quiet persistence; it’s filing forms and requests, and pursuing boring pieces of paper that, put together like some macabre collage, paint a picture otherwise rendered invisible. There are no Woodward and Bernstein histrionics, nor are they depicted as relentlessly driven scoop-pursuing alcoholics and sluts (which is way closer to the truth). They’re just people whose job / calling it is to pursue the hows, the whys, the wheres, the whens and the whos.
Though it probably would be the height of tedium for people to watch if they have no connection to the world of witchcraft and sorcery that is journalism, I found this fascinating both as a movie about its subject (being the journos, not the scandal itself) and about the deeply stupid and venal people of Boston who put up with this malignant cancer in its midst for way too bloody long. Spotlight is a solid film to add to the canon of movies that portray journalists as just about the greatest people on Earth. Who are you to disagree, you baby seal clubber / hedge fund manager?
8 reasons I generally have never wanted to punch a cardinal in the face, but in your case I’ll make an exception out of 10
“We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy; show me the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn't have to face charges, show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top, down.” – I’ll show you mine if you show me yours - Spotlight