Film devotees like to talk about “important films” when they mean films that have had some long-lasting effect on the art or the industry. I’m not here to argue that definition. It’s appropriate in the context of film. There’s a higher level of “important film,” though: one that raises the awareness of a larger issue, especially if it can do so in a commercially viable manner. (“Commercially viable” because if the film is too esoteric, not enough people beyond the cadre of those who probably already know about the topic will see it for it to become truly important) Spotlight is such a film.
For those who don’t know, Spotlight is the story of how the Boston Globe investigated and broke the story of the systemic cover-up within the Catholic Church of pedophile priests. The Church didn’t stop at covering up for the priests; it re-assigned them to virgin territory to molest children where suspicions had not yet been aroused. The tacit complicity of local institutions from media to law enforcement to the courts conspired to create as disgraceful an episode as this nation has ever suffered, in its way as bad as slavery and our treatment of the native population.
(That’s a bold statement. Here’s my rationale: as bad as slavery and the Indian policies were, they were legal. Abhorrent as that is, the morals of their respective, overlapping eras saw these as acceptable practices of the time, codified in law. Child molestation was not only illegal, but universally reviled as being worse than a mere crime, yet the Church and its apologists not only covered up but, as a matter of policy, enabled a world-wide conspiracy to allow priests to abuse children without meaningful consequence.)
Spotlight tells its story in the matter-of-fact style of All the President’s Men and is just as effective. Director Tom McCarthy doesn’t dilute his effect with over dramatization. What he did was to assemble an eerily authentic cast that showed how professionals work a story and to let that work speak for itself.
The film provides another cautionary tale. In an era of “news as entertainment,” few newspapers have the resources—or the will—to conduct the kind of long-term investigation required to break such a story. That’s a dangerous gap that places all of us in jeopardy, especially those least able to take effective action themselves: the young, the old, and the marginalized. A famous (mis) quote describes a newspaper’s role as “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s a bastardization of Finley Peter Dunne’s original phrase, but I found it interesting that in researching the source I found the same words used to describe God’s role in the Dictionary of Christianese. In this case, the Globe was more reliable than God.
I’m not going any farther down that road. The point of this post is to celebrate the genius of Spotlight. See it. Doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, Catholic or not. Its lessons go well beyond religion to touch on the importance of remaining skeptical when given assurances from authority if an accusation threatens that authority. The lengths to which an institution—any institution—will sink are immeasurable. Few individuals have the time—or the juice—to look behind the curtain. We desperately need institutions that have not only the resources, but the resolve, to do so. Spotlight is proof.