Just as the image of the British monarchy was remade in the wake of the Diana catastrophe, with careful PR and reliable players, so has the Catholic Church attempted to manage wavering public perception with a dazzling and progressive new leader, Pope Francis. The crimes of priests and the tacit complicity of the church are still many and ongoing. The way the church has shielded and coddled pedophile priests, tangled up in its struggle to hold onto a hypocritical stance that denies the sexuality of the male animal, is something for which they have yet to completely admit, much less begin to atone. Most unforgivable of all are the obstacles put in place by the system, making it all the more difficult to nail the bastards once their crimes became too big to ignore. Hundreds upon thousands of victims for decades have been either silenced with pay-outs large and small, or else driven to addiction, self harm, and suicide. There is no monetary amount that can absolve the church of these crimes. There is only self-reflection on the unholy and unhealthily foundation upon which it has been built.
The story of this inherent rot has been brought to the surface by writer/director Tom McCarthy, just as Pope Francis captivates the media, seeking to bandage the raw damage inflicted by the Catholic Church. In his thoughtful and moving new film, Spotlight, McCarthy lays out how the Boston Globe nailed the Boston Archdiocese for its efforts to cover up the deeds of 90 or so pedophile priests who were never brought to trial for their crimes but rather shuffled around to various other countries where they would continue to molest countless more children.
The corruption begins at the core — the type of victims chosen are most often from poor families with nowhere to turn but the church. Their parents are grateful for the attention the kids receive. Sooner or later the priests grooms then assaults his young victims, using whatever process to get him through the night, all in the name of sinning and forgiveness for those sins — such is the Catholic way. More than once the victims recall a priest’s attention in terms of becoming a friend of God himself. Another outstanding score by Howard Shore rumbles in somber counterpoint, like murmurs of judgment.
The Globe reporters who would ultimately receive a Pulitzer Prize for their astonishing coverage begin by pointing fingers at lawyers, judges, cops, and ordinary citizens working in unison to protect the church they so dearly love, and eventually those fingers begin to point back to themselves. The bigger the story gets, the harder it is to find anyone who isn’t part of the growing cancer. This involves a lot of note taking old-school, which many journalists will look upon with nostalgia as they’re seen tapping stories into their tablets. It is knocking on doors and prying open the doors that are sealed shut. It is being a bulldog, a nuisance and sometimes a liar all in the service of a uncovering a story this important.
One thing McCarthy does so cleverly is remind us what being a journalist really means. We’re in an era where even the New York Times is falling prey to clickbait reporting and failing to adequately source big stories, like the falsehoods they printed about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. An era where the Huffington Post is the gold standard of news trafficking, because it manages to draw eyeballs by appealing to our base instincts while also pretending to do actual hard news reporting. We stand to lose too much if this is the only way news can reach the general public. In Spotlight, reporters dutifully take notes, wait months, even years to get the story right before putting the story out.
This is where comparisons to All the President’s Men must stop. Yes, both are films about good journalism. Both are films about bringing down a massive power structure that involved payoffs and corrupt officials. But the timing of Spotlight is what separates it from that President’s Men. If anything, it might be better compared to Michael Mann’s The Insider, which is also about how news has changed and why that change isn’t necessarily a good thing. Spotlight is a movie about the moment the way we receive our news began to change. Just as the internet was exploding at the beginning of the new millennium, the Catholic Church was imploding, along with the World Trade Center, our privacy, and our trust. CNN has turned into a fear generator and Fox News might be the most dangerous thing that’s happened to America. Spotlight gives us a moment to stop, take a breath, and remember.
The Globe’s reporting led to countless lawsuits and it’s not over yet. Most of the priests have not admitted guilt. Only a few are spending time in jail. What hard news does at its best has nothing to do with telling us Justin Bieber cried at VMAs, or insisting that we need to know what instagram photo of Kim Kardashian’s got the most views. The nobler goal of bringing important stories to light to protect people sits atop Spotlight, which never loses sight of the damage done by not reporting the story decades ago.
This is a film that has no big Oscar-y scenes. There is humility before these unforgivable crimes. It is a carefully written screenplay, honored by a harmonious ensemble of actors at the top of their game. The standouts are Michael Keaton, of course, as the longtime Globe editor and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Walter Robinson. Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes has perhaps the most notable scenes. Liev Schreiber shows once again that he is yet another great actor Hollywood has not figured out what to do with yet. Rachel McAdams gives an authentic portrayal as Sacha Pfeiffer.
McCarthy throws in subtle imagery to remind us how much things have changed — really changed — since this story broke back in the early 2000s. AOL was a thing back then, for instance. The internet really wasn’t. The director’s ability to hold this long and sometimes rambling story together has resulted in the best film to screen at Telluride so far.
One of the Spotlight’s most moving moments isn’t one of its biggest. It comes at the hands of Stanley Tucci who plays a worn-down lawyer advocating for the victims. The story breaks but he knows it’s really only the beginning. How can this mess ever be cleaned up? How can the Catholic Church ever be made to change? How can an institution that purports to do the work of God do so much harm to so many?
As the world looks away and throws roses at the feet of the new Pope, millions of young children are getting ready to start school. The worshippers are still putting their trust in those who wear the robes. How can they know if the culture of abuse is really over? How can they know their children are safe? This ongoing trauma stands as the backdrop to McCarthy’s subdued, superb film. It looms impossibly large, casting the darkest shadow in places that should be flooded with light.