Overview: Four Boston Globe reporters track down proof that the Catholic Church protected priests who sexually abused children. Open Road Films; 2015; Rated R; 128 Minutes.
All The Pope’s Men: I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about journalism. There’s something innately compelling about good-hearted, determined people on the hunt for truth and justice. If Spotlight brings anything new to this sub-genre, it’s a dogged insistence on denying the first part of the equation. The members of the titular investigative group at the Boston Globe aren’t callous or even apathetic, but the film never forgets that their work is, well, exactly that. Work. It’s their job. Spotlight does its best not to project personal motivations for covering the story onto these characters. They don’t choose to chase this story down because they have a stake in it, they’re told to do so by their boss. Any personal connections they have to it arise naturally as a result of covering it. Spotlight has been compared to Zodiac for its depiction of the journalistic process, but Zodiac used journalism as a conduit to explore the external pressures being exacted on its characters. Spotlight is more concerned with the the way the process itself affects its characters.
Feet In The Door: If Spotlight has a bad habit, it’s that of losing itself in the details of this process. Too often, the movie gets wrapped up in scenes of dull exposition, paying more attention to what it’s about than what it’s about-about. There’s a meaningless interlude where the case is briefly shut down after 9/11, and it’s far too short to say anything about the fickle nature of journalism. Before you know it, the case has resumed. When Spotlight excels, it’s exploring Boston’s contradictory small-town dynamics. Boston is depicted as the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, protecting their own and shunning outsiders. In the film’s most powerful moment, Spotlight journalist Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) studies a list of halfway-homes for pedophile priests and is horrified to find that one of them is in his neighborhood. The camera tracks him as he walks out of his house and down the street to the address, the extended take emphasizing the house’s close proximity to his own. Like many journalism films, Spotlight is about a conspiracy with far-reaching implications, but it’s also about the impact that conspiracy has on a local level. Some of the journalists know the players in the story personally, and the far-reaching influence of the Church is shown only in its simplest manifestations. Journalist Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) interviews one victim in a park, and as he starts to tear up, he acknowledges that they happen to be standing right outside a church with a playground in front of it. This is accompanied by a cut to a wide shot of their surroundings, revealing the way that the church had been lurking in the background all along. “Did you ever try to tell anyone?” she asks. “Like who,” he responds, “a priest?” The size of the conspiracy is treated as less important than the way that its size facilitates its effect on individuals. Spotlight deftly intertwines the personal with the profound.
Last Gasp: Before the end credits of Spotlight roll, the film shows a lengthy list of cities with similar Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. I was sitting in a theater in Providence, Rhode Island, and I could feel the air rush out of the room as the city’s name appeared. In an instant, the distance afforded by cinema evaporated. I can’t say for how long Spotlight will stick with me, but that moment was unforgettable. Once again, the film had taken something massively monstrous and made it impossibly intimate. I have my qualms with Spotlight’s dry narrative, but it has enough bits like this to make those qualms almost irrelevant.
Wrap-Up: Spotlight is a captivating story of small-town conspiracy on a city-wide scale, though it tends to lose itself in the minutiae of its process.