Disclosure: As a teen, I dreamed of being an investigative journalist.
It’s been a full 24 hours since my most recent trip to the cinema and I’m still kinda traumatised. After the film finished, I discussed it for a solid 90 minutes. After a night of poor sleep, I woke up and did a quick internet search before work: I needed to know how true this story was. I got that the main thrust is true, but how many liberties did the filmmakers take for dramatic effect? How much artistic licence did they employ?
Apparently the correct answer is…not a whole lot. As in, next to nil. In fact, all the people on whom the main characters are based, have given it their nod of approval. Several are all over the publicity tour. The real Boston Globe newspaper has the story they broke online in full view, you can google any of the people named in the film and find out what they’re up to now; they’re all still alive.
I knew nothing about Spotlight except that Mark Ruffalo is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for it, and still had the courage to speak out about racism in Hollywood in the light of the #OscarsSoWhite Scandal 2: the boycott. He said he’d attend the Oscars for all the victims of sex abuse who are at the centre of Spotlight’s story. So I went in knowing some vague things; the film was about child abuse ie not really my thing – I’ve a tender stomach – and at least one of the actors is a man of integrity.
Spotlight doesn’t have any guns that I recall, nor does it have any blood. There’s not much swearing, people pretty rarely raise their voice, and there are defintely no heroes. The main characters are a harmonious team of co-workers: Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcey James, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber. The acting’s great, and while I get why Ruffalo is the name on everyone’s lips, it was a pleasure seeing McAdams doing the work I’ve been waiting for since Mean Girls. Mature, understated but a powerful performance from a gifted actor, unconstrained in this film by the beauty imperative. It’s all sober colours, plain suits and flats style-wise, and yet Rachel McAdams absolutely shines as the only woman on the team. RE Diversity, while the main characters are all white (forgivable: so was the real team), among the lesser characters and extras, there is a respectable proportion of people of colour. So without any car chases, or special costumes, we follow a dramatic, classic tale of David and Goliath with perhaps the most pyrric victory ever captured on film. It’s called storytelling.
A new boss at the Boston Globe newspaper is meeting the team, and innocently suggests that there might be a bigger story behind the 2001 scandal that a local priest is being pursued on charges of child abuse going back decades. Especially since there’s a lawyer who thinks the church is hiding something. As the story unfolds, we see four colleagues trying to understand what happened via appropriately painstaking, thorough research, and slowly come to grips with the horror that has always been all around them. What makes the film so potent, is the suggestion that actually, the horror is around us all.
Spotlight is not about the corruption and negligence at the highest levels of the Catholic church. It’s certainly not about the innate amorality of Bostonians. It’s about human frailty, and the catastrophic effects of collective cowardice. Spotlight doesn’t depict stuffed envelopes changing hands in dark corners. There are no veiled threats to loved ones preventing the facts getting out. There is only the steadfast refusal to look the truth in the face, even when that truth is generating heart-breakingly shattered people. It is that old adage ‘evil reigns when good people do nothing’ that the film zooms in on: the devasting consequences of choosing to protect the powerful, rather than the most vulnerable.
What makes Spotlight so haunting, for me, is the knowledge that it’s true. Really really true. Spotlight is the real name of the investigative journalism unit at the Boston Globe. The character Mark Ruffalo plays, Mike Rezendes, was a real member of the team, in fact, the prize-winning journalist still works there. The ensemble is not one of ‘composite’ characters, just terrifyingly real ones: the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, seen on the side of the forces for good all-too-briefly for a moment after 9/11, is a real person, even more powerful than he was back then, despite a rather well-documented fall from grace.
The out-of-towners, the new Jewish editor in a Catholic town, and the Armenian lawyer, really were subject to a certain cool welcome and unpopular with The Establishment respectively. The film is excellent at highlighting how a little xenophobia helps when trying to protect Our Way of Life, but also how sometimes it takes a foreigner to say ‘Er, this sounds kinda fucked up…’ It’s ironic that the outsiders seem to do more for the town’s children than those who purport to love it so dearly.
Spotlight as a film lives and breathes the maxim ‘less is more’; there are no histrionics, no crazy jumpcuts, no flashing lights. It’s subtle and slow, but think thriller or horror film slow. I spent the whole film with my fingers in my ears expecting someone to get a knife in the back at any second. It’s that torturously steadfast pace which makes the punch all the more powerful. The revelation of the evil that comes is so traumatising that your average viewer probably couldn’t stomach it any other way.
The dignity accorded the survivors of childhood sex abuse is incredible and the survivors are at the heart of the film. Their stories are told simply, but their wounds are laid bare. The ease with which a retired priest ‘confesses’ to having abused children in his care, is juxtaposed with the physical discomfort the survivors have in common, the ticks, the social awkwardness they all display. The tension among the characters builds as the reporters’ determination means becoming more and more acquainted with the survivors’ experiences, and the conspiracy to deny them justice: Just knowing the survivors is enough to seriously distress seasoned investigative journalists.
I’m not a Catholic, but was acquainted with the notion of priests as ‘kiddie fiddlers’. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how the institution was clearly more concerned with protecting the esteem of the priesthood, than with the children in its care. That such a stance may rot the church’s foundations appears to not have been a consideration.
It therefore strikes me as ironic that the film does a fair amount to rehabilitate the image of Catholic priests. We learn, through the team’s psychological expert, himself an ex-priest now married to a nun (and another real person), that only about 50% of Catholic priests keep their vow of celibacy. The vast majority of those that don’t, are in sexual relationships with other consenting adults. Only about 6% of priests are paedophiles, and contrary to popular belief, both girls and boys are abused. If you gasped at the word ‘only’ herein lies the rub: that 6% of priests are in line with the level of paedophilia in the general population. In the priesthood, however, because so much consensual adult sex is conducted illicitly, there is a general culture of secrecy around sex which creates a space for serial abusers to thrive.
In the face of statistics like ‘one in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused’, and ‘2 in 3 children sexually abused by an adult told someone‘, Spotlight kept me up at night because it’s well done. A tense drama, a whodunnit you’re scared of finding the answer to; because when the question of who’s to blame comes up, the truth is, unless we speak out every time we come across injustice, we all are.