As the lights came up after Spotlight there was a hush over the audience. Not the kind of excited hush that follows a film that was mind-blowing and takes the brain a few seconds to process. No, this was a deeper hush. Unsettled. A hush from the pit of our stomachs that knows we just witnessed something awful and we don’t know what to do about it. This was the hush of rage and anguish. The hush that blankets a victim’s cries of despair. That hush didn’t come because we walked into a theater and saw something horrible. It came because we realize that the horror was never there on the screen, but rather is waiting for us when we walk out. The doors are open, inviting us back into the world where all that pain came from, and that hush is us deciding what we’re going to do about it.
With the benefit of hindsight and history, Spotlight documents a story that we all know about- the Catholic Church scandal of pedophiliac priests. We know this story and have had a decade to be outraged about it. But, the reason it’s common knowledge is because of four journalists at the Boston Globe that started with a small local piece about one priest and kept digging and digging until the enormity of the problem became evident to every community around the world.
Spotlight was a team at the Boston Globe that specialized in long term journalism and the film does a fantastic job of showing how grueling it can be to follow a story over a year. This is a procedural film that doesn’t bother with extraneous details like the personal lives of anyone involved, and it could be said that it isn’t really about four journalists, but rather, the job that four journalists do. The obvious comparison is All the President’s Men, but I think Spotlight strikes a similar tone to David Fincher’s Zodiac. It’s a cold film that doesn’t grandstand or spew impassioned speeches (with one exception,) and is oddly pragmatic both in front of and behind the camera.
Journalism in the pre-internet days was grinding work and Spotlight showcases how tedious and unrelenting you had to be to get the whole story. The four members of the Spotlight team, led by a standout performance from Michael Keaton, are told by the brand new editor that they should devote some long-term resources to the story of a local priest that had been accused of child molestation. After encountering the pervasive wall that was the Catholic Church’s influence on Boston they get the feeling that there is more to the story than one bad apple priest and this could in fact be a conspiracy that goes all the way to the heart of the Church. After grinding through months worth of research it becomes more and more evident that this isn’t an isolated incident. This is a sickness that has infiltrated every facet of church life.
Spotlight’s most welcome characteristic is that it knows that the problem was too big. There was blame everywhere. From those that knew about it and covered it up, to those that remained willfully ignorant this was a cover-up that involved thousands of people all over the world. That scope is too big to tackle, so Spotlight keeps it in Boston and doesn’t extend into the worldwide politics of the matter. That act of restraint allows us to stay with these characters as they slowly realize how far this can go. There is a beautiful moment involving the four sitting around a speakerphone when they finally grasp that the number of priests involved is probably not the 13 that they had been investigating, but more like 90. It is one of my favorite moments in film this year.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the plot and very little about the filmmaking, which I believe is what the filmmakers were going for. There is nothing flashy, no scenery chewing, or emotional outbursts. Keaton and Mark Ruffalo are stellar in their roles, but they are everyday guys just doing their jobs. Everything about the film is understated so that the impact of the story is given its full weight. The camera work is mostly static and the color scheme is fairly muted. All of these tiny details give credence to the realism and let the evil underneath the surface come to light.
There is a reason this film should be considered essential viewing. It takes a procedural approach to a emotionally charged subject and lets the story unfold, and that distance allows the viewer to add his own emotion. There is a realization as an audience member that the film never told us how to feel but that dread and impending rage was brought by us. I personally don’t know how anyone could justify the actions of the Church and I fully realize that I am projecting my own emotions onto the film. I was personally outraged at each step of the story as every new layer of deceit revealed another and it became more apparent that those generous donations by the common family were being used by the tax free church to pay off victims of priests that were raping children and then being protected.
I will step off my soapbox now and apologize for the unbiasedness of those last few sentences. Although, I believe it is the strength of this film that it elicits such an emotional reaction in those that see it, and caused me to write almost one thousand words on the movie. This is a powerful film and one that should not only be seen but talked about. We can’t let that hush that we felt lead ourselves into complacency and apathy. We need to care. Grade: A+