Besides being a surprisingly engaging dramatization of the Boston Globe spotlight team’s exposé of the child sex abuse epidemic of the Catholic Church, Spotlight is a soaring testimony to the importance of free speech and a free, independent press. With freedom comes great responsibility, and just as this film affirms these principles, it also reminds us that the pursuit of the truth takes real courage. However, like its 2017 companion film, The Post, it suffers from a partisan self-congratulatory sanctimony that tilts it towards agitprop.
Spotlight falls solidly in the tradition of films such as All The President’s Men. It’s a great example of how a story of individuals in the press who doggedly pursued the truth and real moral virtue in the face of institutional opposition and threats of ostracism can make compelling screen drama.
All of the elements of this film click. Everything from the casting to the writing to the details of the victims to the quintessentially Bostonian vibe of the film, Spotlight epitomizes intelligent, economical cinematic storytelling. Out of all the films that have billed themselves as Boston Films in recent years, this and Black Mass were the most successful in terms of their portrayal of the scenic details, accents, personalities and provincial attitudes.
The tension of the film centers around the ever escalating opposition and stonewalling the team faced as they deepened their investigation. An especially great scene which captured the courage that each player had to muster was Marty Baron’s first meeting with Cardinal Law; roles played by Liev Schreiber and Len Cariou respectively. Prior to the meeting, the Globe lawyers filed a suit to unseal public records pertaining to past abuse cases. Baron is a model of composure as Law tries to seduce him into the conspiracy of silence between institutional powers. “Things go well when our institutions work together, don’t you agree Marty?”, asks Law. “Actually, I think the press works best when it stands alone.” BOOM! Fuck off, Law.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone coming out of this film with anything other than a deep-seated contempt for the Catholic Church hierarchy. The enormity of the damage done to the lives of the victims is harrowing all by itself, but what is even more galling is the combined sense of denial and above-the-law entitlement exercised over many years. The scale of the scandal beggars belief.
Ironically, this is also the film’s great shortcoming. I sense that this film was greenlit because it humiliates the Catholic Church and its leadership. Anything that makes Christians look like corrupt degenerates and liberals look like virtuous crusaders is Hollywood’s default setting. They are deserving targets of course, but it’s increasingly obvious that the Catholic Church is not the sole province of child sex abuse. It would be truly courageous if someone in Hollywood were just as fearless about pursuing child sex abuse within the Hollywood community. But I’m not holding my breath.
The most abiding message of the film is its fearless affirmation of free speech and a free, independent press. Good journalism is an invaluable public service and having the courage to suspend confirmation biases, challenge institutional power and pursue facts wherever they lead should be the guiding principle for any journalist and the standard to which journalists are held accountable. Since we live in an era of sensational clickbait journalism, academics who obscure reality by cloaking theories in pretensions of impenetrable profundity and publications which pursue an agenda driven interpretation of “facts”, the film reminds us that there are objective, verifiable facts and obtaining them is often more difficult than any of us imagine.