Spotlight an intelligent film about institutions and responsibility

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

The first thing you notice about Spotlight is all the greys and blues. Decidedly dreary, the lighting and colour scheme is a fitting choice since there is absolutely nothing cheerful about the subject matter. Focused on the story of the widespread sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church, the film focuses on the investigative reporters of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that broke the story in 2003.

Prior to the start of their investigation, the team is anxious about their future in the midst of a changing media landscape. From the beginning of Spotlight it’s clear that this is a movie that highlights the self-preservation of institutions not only by the Church, but by the newspaper industry as well – the Church when it comes to a monopoly on morality, and print media when it comes to relevance. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is brought in as the new editor of the Globe and quickly questions why the smattering of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has not been more thoroughly investigated. It is the sort of long-term investigative work that the Spotlight team specializes in, and it’s clear that tackling this story is one way to prove the team’s relevance to a changing audience beginning to prioritize quick news stories over in-depth reporting. The script allows room to incorporate factors like timing and proper coverage of a story, effectively demonstrating how complicated it is to do something as simple as tell the truth.

Consequently, the audience is able to feel the same frustration as Spotlight’s journalists. Victims are understandably hesitant to talk, there is resistance from high profile figures and profiteering lawyers, and maddening legalities that stand in the way of giving the team access to damning documents. Incidentally, using the challenging nature of accessing sealed documents as a key plot device effectively maintained an appropriate degree of suspense during the movie.

I say appropriately because injecting this film with high drama would have been ludicrous, and mildly inappropriate. It’s a biographical drama; a thriller it is not. Spotlight is an exploration of individual responsibility in the context of institutions. It’s exceptionally easy to condemn horrific acts after the fact, but it is desperately hard to point it out while it remains protected by the institutions whose credibility could be undermined by such exposure. These institutions, which are not just limited to churches, but schools and even the family, provide a convenient framework for dismissing unacceptable behaviour through constant reminders of the chaos that would ensue should they no longer exist to provide structure. That lack of structure is portrayed as infinitely worse than the institution’s flaws. Instead it’s seen as better to suffer in silence for the greater good, even if a great number of people are suffering.

Spotlight is not a movie that condemns religion. In fact it spends a fair amount of time examining the prominent role religion plays in the lives of the Spotlight team, all of whom were admittedly raised Catholic though they’ve largely lapsed. Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is unable to take her grandmother to church anymore once she learns more about the widespread abuse. As an audience, we witness her concern over shaking her grandmother’s faith, but beyond that we watch the Spotlight team losing a religion they didn’t know they still had. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) admits to Pfieffer that while he did stop going to church, he enjoyed it as a kid, and always thought that someday he’d want to go back – a feeling that is broken now. Instead of being a film that condemns religion it examines the difference between faith and organized religion. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer advocating for abuse victims, admits that he is Christian; he just doesn’t go to church. For him, the Church is an institution made up of men and is fleeting, but faith itself is eternal.

Garabedian’s words are one of many references to the fact that institutions are simply a collection of ideas and individuals. Throughout the movie we hear stories of families who cooperated by keeping the abuse quiet in an effort to honour the directives of the Church. At one point a cop, whose ideology, if any, should be to serve and protect, tells one of the Spotlight reporters, “Nobody wants to cuff a priest.” Finally, a system’s vulnerability to change is made clear by Garabedian who explains that it takes an outsider to come in and change things – in his case he is an Armenian while Baron is a Jew. Makes sense considering an outsider will experience more difficulty and confusion about the flimsy logic of “how things have always been”. They are less accepting of people’s reasoning that they are just doing their job, keeping their heads down, or protecting themselves. Garabedian says at one point, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

The film – if not entertaining due to its subject matter – is engaging. The script is smart, it doesn’t waste time on long-winded dialogue about guilt and shame, and it effectively conveys what we need to know about Boston’s people and culture. In one great scene, Baron is given a copy of the Catechism and told to consider it his guide to Boston. Spotlight is made up of an all-star cast that is enjoyable to watch no matter how hard the hair, makeup, and costume teams worked to make them look like burned out journalists. Spotlight is a great film, and easily worthy of its Oscar nods.

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