Spotlight is a celebration of investigative journalism in the tradition of All the President’s Men. It clearly merits a thumbs up, though I don’t think it quite reaches the classic level of All the President’s Men.
As with nonfiction movies in general, this is “based on a true story” rather than being a true story, though as usual I don’t have the background knowledge to be able to say just how much it deviates from the truth.
Spotlight takes place early in the 21st century, so it feels modern for the most part, but technology moves so fast that there are elements that already stand out as outdated, such as the look of the mobile phones.
An AOL Online billboard drew chuckles from the audience where I saw the movie.
“Spotlight” is the name of a special investigative journalism team at the Boston Globe. The movie is about the Spotlight team breaking the story of widespread child molestation by Catholic priests.
I of course was aware of the priest pedophilia epidemic and its egregious cover-up by the Catholic Church, but it’s not a story I followed super closely and recall all the details about. I did see—and write about—a very good documentary about it though: Deliver Us from Evil. I found myself thinking about certain things I remembered from that documentary—such as speculation about what might make priests so much more likely than the general population to molest children—as I watched Spotlight.
Not that they overlap completely in their subject matter. Deliver Us from Evil is about the phenomenon itself; Spotlight is very much focused on specific people at a specific newspaper investigating certain local-to-Boston aspects of the phenomenon (before people even knew there was a phenomenon).
In no particular order, I’ll mention some of the points made by the movie that I happened to find striking and worth pondering:
• The Catholic Church is very powerful in Boston, is used to getting its way, and plays amoral political influence games no different from how a major corporation or other impersonal behemoth without a social conscience does.
• A common defense of downplaying or killing the story was the pragmatic one that the benefit of publicizing these crimes would be outweighed by the damage done to all those in need who a weakened church would be less able to assist with its extensive philanthropic efforts and to all the people of faith who would be disillusioned and heartbroken by the exposure of such horrific behavior.
• The Boston Globe reporters and editors who broke this story fit the mode of journalistic heroes to a large degree, but you can still fault the newspaper—and the media in general—for not following the available evidence and breaking the story years earlier.
• Multiple times during the period the story was being investigated and continuing after the initial article about the crimes was published, the scope of the phenomenon was discovered to be considerably larger than hitherto imagined and each such revelation was startling and highly disturbing to the Spotlight team, with the scale eventually becoming almost unimaginable.
• If you were a reporter or editor working on this story, it would be hard not to end up paranoid, as you could never really be sure who was working for or operating under the influence of the Church—including from within your own newspaper—to surreptitiously gather information about the investigation, apply pressure to kill the story, etc. Not to mention, some of the people who seem to be your allies helping you to find out about and expose the scandal could well be kooks, greedy lawyers looking to cash in, or otherwise unreliable sources.
• As one of the Globe bigwigs—one of those who appears to be fully supportive of the Spotlight investigation—points out, the story will be far easier for the Church to minimize or spin in its favor if it’s just about one or even several priests molesting children; it has to unambiguously establish that people high up in the Church hierarchy knew what was going on pretty much all along and actively covered it up.
I mentioned that in some respects the historical period depicted in the movie, though only a decade or two ago, seems far more distant than that. One such respect is the very idea of print media devoting substantial resources to major investigative efforts that can take months and even years to come to fruition, if they ever do. Because all the free media available today makes it so much harder for newspapers like the Globe to charge enough to even stay afloat let alone do the best “big” things newspapers in the past were capable of, and because media consolidation has left virtually all the mainstream media under the umbrellas of just a handful of massively large and inherently conservative corporations, such investigative journalism has been dwindling for quite a while, which is a loss to society that’s hard to overstate.
One can hope that a movie like Spotlight inspires people to do what needs to be done to prevent such quality journalism from further dying out, but really the economic, political, and technological forces bringing about this change for the worse are likely too powerful for that hope to be realistic.
Spotlight is far more mainstream a movie than the overwhelming majority of the—mostly indie and foreign—films that I write about. But it’s an unusually high quality token of that mainstream type. It tells a very important story, it keeps it interesting and suspenseful without going too far in a sensationalist direction, and everything about how it’s put together—definitely including the acting from Michael Keaton and the ensemble cast—is solid and professional. This is a winner.