Dan and I just went to see Spotlight, the movie that tells the tale of how the Archdiocese of Boston was made to face the public on the priestly paedophilia scandal. Or the tale of how the Boston Globe Spotlight staff (hence the name of the movie) went about peeling away the layers of communal coverup. Or the tale of those who were victimized, abused, in many cases effectively murdered by an unbelievably large number of defective men who had become priests. Or—and I believe this is why the movie deserves to be ranked among the greatest—the tale of how organizations, of all kinds, automatically cover and bury socially dangerous actions to the detriment of their real mission. The bizarre example of the Chicago shooting of Jamar Clark comes to mind–a year to come to terms with the obvious–all for organizational (and power) reasons. And in the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino each Islamic community has to again ask itself how to untangle the and reject the hateful people from the high ideals of the organization. I give this movie five stars and every award you can find.
Most movies need to take liberties to meet audience expectations of time, too much detail, or modern expectation of spectacle. Somehow Spotlight manages to do the opposite. The visual medium is so intense you won’t want to walk out of the theater until the end of the credits. Without chases, without guns, without CGI (any CGI is cosmetic), this is a real story that will scare you. Yet, at the end you will be pushed upward by the dogged success of the Boston Globe to break through, aware of their own errors of omission, wondering how to find solutions. You will have a glimmer of hope. More than 20% of the total in the Archdiocese, 250+ priests, preyed on thousands of children, boys and girls too, over 50 years with near impunity. Worse—and the real focus here—is that they were recycled to other areas where they continued their predations until moved again. At every step the organization based on the idea of being there for the welfare of the poor, the sick, the unprotected chose to protect the organization. And the community knew of the hurt and protected the organization, not the children.
Thomas McCarthy (Director and Writer) and Josh Singer (Writer) have crafted a movie that does all this with attention to the personal. Your heart cries when a victim finally speaks out, when he describes exactly what the priest did to him, how he did it. No flinch, but no extra. But they do not wallow in the gore, instead returning to it every so often as a composer does in a fine symphony, lightly, reminding. Then they have added the second theme–the personal anguishes of the main characters, first the Spotlight journalists, all of them Catholic and all but one very local, then with each of the fine supporting cast of lawyers, charity boosters, and family members. Not one of these turns out to be a victim himself or herself; there are no cheap theatrical tricks to squeeze your heart. A third thematic form carries it all— the organization. Here McCarthy and Singer have achieved a marvel of cinematic construction, having layered more than three organizations and their problems so seamlessly you never feel you’ve lost track of one of them. This is not solely a story of the Archdiocese of Boston–if so you could call it an attack film, and there will be those in the organization who will. Instead, at least two other organizations are profiled–the venerable Boston Globe itself, and a school system. You can add the legal systems we live daily lives in, too. Like a perfect symphony, personal and grand, perfectly intricate.
Incidentally, the music is excellent (Howard Shore).
The acting is superb—pointing at one actor would do a disservice to the others who were equally good. Most of the main characters have an opportunity to show their film acting chops in emotional scenes—and the director and the actor has cut the perfect diamond from the raw stone, clearly taking the filming time to do it right.
Was there anything that I did not like about this movie? Yes. I hated the material this movie is based on—the acts are heinous, the coverup horrifying. That is not the movie’s fault but its opportunity. I didn’t like it that the Catholic Church has a major part of its shiny new shield of goodness taken away–we all like what Pope Francis has done. In that I am like any other organization person—protect the overall no matter how bad, to the end.
But Spotlight is painful precisely because the Catholic Church has not dealt fully with the real damage—don’t call them allegations or you are already part of the problem. And we are left with the grand theme of the movie—how do we break this cycle of protection and damage, both personal and organizational, in all our organizations? The Chicago shooting is an analog of the Catholic Church’s problem. And increasingly we are recognizing, from our western eyes, that the various main groups of Islam–Sunni, Shi’a and the hundreds of smaller sects–have a similar problem that they are struggling to deal with.
In the meantime, the film ends with a list of locations where Catholic priests were found to be molesting children, and they are worldwide. And the response of the Church has not been even, it is still finding ways to protect itself rather than its congregation.
JTW, Dec 2015