not in our stars, but in ourselves
Ah, Oscar season. Towards the end of the year, the floodgates open, and all the studios release all their “prestige” pictures – movies that they figure they can at least market to appeal to the mostly old and white body of Academy voters, even if the movie itself is less easily swallowed. These movies often take on Big Issues, and feature Heroic Characters, and – often – support the status quo (i.e., the notion that being old and white is the right and good and default thing) while patting their audiences on the back for supporting faux-progressive ideals espoused in the film. Every now and then, the marketing machine gets behind the movie that is actually one of the best of the year (like 12 Years a Slave), but those are outlier instances. Those are not the norm. With all that being said: yes, Spotlight is an Oscar-bait movie. I admit: I was terribly reluctant to see it, and probably wouldn’t have, if not for my boyfriend’s interest, but I saw it, and it wasn’t bad. All the advertising, touting it as yet another prestige picture, belies the fact that Spotlight is actually a quiet, thoughtful little film about a scandal that was, and is, absolutely horrifying in its scope.
The film begins in the 1970s. A priest has been arrested after molesting a young child or children – but with some amount of influence bearing down on the police, the priest is released, while the children’s mother is reassured by the police, a father, and the assistant district attorney that it will never happen again and that the priest will never be near her kids again. In the summer of 2001. Father John Geoghan, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, has been indicted on over eighty counts of sexual abuse. The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team – a group of four investigative journalists – is assigned to dig into the case by newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Before long, the journalists realize that this case is far larger than just one priest: Walter “Robby” Robertson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), dig through the Archdiocese’s own records, and find that there have been dozens of priests who spent two or three years in a parish, were removed for “sick leave” or some other reason, and then reassigned to another parish elsewhere. After interviewing victims, lawyers, and even some of the Archdiocese’s own priests, they realize that there’s what some might call a conspiracy: pedophile priests were an open secret in the Catholic Church, and it was inconceivable that high-ranking Church officials – from the RCAB’s head, Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), all the way to the Vatican itself – didn’t know and weren’t complicit. It even transpires that lawyers, ostensibly working on behalf of the victims, have created a cottage industry, wherein they settle directly with the Church and take a hearty cut for themselves, all while the victims are constrained by a confidentiality agreement. In a heavily Catholic town like Boston, there’s plenty of pressure on the Globe to drop the story, but they persevere, and publish the full investigative report in January 2002. Initially, the reporters had estimated there may have been 13 pedophile priests in the Archdiocese; after their investigation, they realize there were at least 87; and, even more chillingly, approximately 1000 victims of child sexual abuse.
In 2003, the Globe justifiably won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the sex abuse scandal. In Spotlight – and, I’m sure, in reality – the reporters beat themselves up for not working on the story earlier. It really was an open secret in parishes all over Massachusetts, as well as the rest of the country (and world): there were some priests who took advantage of their positions of authority, of their status as representatives of God, to abuse children. My boyfriend was raised Catholic, and while he thankfully was never a victim of a pedophile priest, he remembers whisperings about at least one father in his town parish – don’t leave your kids alone with Father John, that kind of thing. At the end of Spotlight, there’s a list of some of the other cities and towns, in the United States and around the world, where sexual abuse was covered up for years and then exposed in the harsh glow emanating from Spotlight’s coverage. It’s staggering, in a way, to think that such horrific abuse could have gone on for so long, with hardly anyone attempting to stop it; but of course, a big enough group will always find ways to protect its own. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest groups ever to exist in Western history, so – in a dreadful, nightmarish way – it makes sense that they would have been so successful in guarding their own weeds. It’s not right, but it’s easy to see how it happened. No one wants to believe that God would allow such a thing, and yet, here we are.
I was of two minds about Spotlight, to get back to the movie qua movie. On the one hand, it’s a solidly constructed film with plenty of great acting. It’s not always easy to make something like investigative reporting seem interesting, especially if there’s no attempt to sex it up, and Spotlight certainly succeeds: the focus is entirely on the story, and how the reporters pursue every possible lead and angle until they’ve built an airtight story – all without any tiresome romantic subplots. It’s surely true to the four reporters, all of whom are still alive (and, I think, all still at the Globe), that they’re all married and far too grownup to waste any time giving each other the glad eye. Spotlight trusts itself and you, the audience, to find the story itself compelling enough to keep watching – and so it is.
On the other hand, however, I couldn’t help feeling that I was watching a TV movie. It would be awfully naive of me to think that the movie feels like something better suited to television just because of where Tom McCarthy got the idea – he played the rat reporter Scott Templeton in season five of The Wire, when David Simon gave a shout-out to his roots at the Baltimore Sun – but, well, I can’t help shaking that feeling. I don’t mind a nice, tightly edited story in a movie, of course, but there was something about this one that felt smaller than warranted. It felt more like a product of television in 2002 than film or television in 2015. The rigidly procedural structure, the SVU-style interviews with victims (often with Heavy Details, like track marks or a playground just outside an immense church), the throwaway musical “score,” the competent but forgettable camera work, the occasional outbursts of emotion from either the victims (understandable) or the reporters (Ruffalo, you’re not going to get an Oscar, so calm down) – it all felt like it was playing by a rulebook from some other era of media production. The results weren’t bad – just slightly less than what I, in the year of our lord 2015, have come to expect in prestige filmmaking. But perhaps that won’t hurt it, come Oscar time: there’s nothing the Academy seems to like more than pretending time has stood still.