"Spotlight" is the best film of 2015 and I will be disappointed if it does not receive the Academy Award for Best Picture. As good as it is, it is just one step short of greatness.
"Spotlight" depicts Boston Globe reporters investigating priest sex abuse of children. "Spotlight" focuses like a laser on what it is to be a journalist, to consider whether or not to cover a story, to select it, to research it, to uncover piece-by-piece, a full narrative, to publish it and to live with the consequences of publication.
You don't learn about the reporter's personal lives except for what you see incidentally as they work at home. There is no romantic subplot; there are no trumped-up action scenes where a reporter punches a priest. There's actually one of those scenes, no doubt a self-conscious salute to classic newspaper films, where you see newspapers being run through one of those giant machines that rapidly prints, folds, and stacks hard copies.
I've never seen a film in which I liked these actors more: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou. Lesser known actors in minor roles are every bit as good. There is no Hollywood in these performances. There's no sexy costumes or makeup, no grandstanding for the Academy. The actors are dressed in the workaday attire of newspapermen and women. Much of the film takes place in a grubby shared office full of sloppy manila file folders or in cafes and working class neighborhoods where informants are interviewed. Each performer plays a cog in a giant wheel working to uncover evil. None of them knows about world-shaking scandal still to come, or Pulitzer Prizes. They are just, with a pair of tweezers, turning over one leaf and seeing what lies beneath and adding that to the information already gathered. Even though viewers already know how this story played out in real life, the audience gasps when a discovery is made; the audience fears that a rock will be thrown through a window; the audience fears that judicial complicity will keep the story hidden. I began crying half an hour into the film. I was crying at the end. I made audible "Huh!" noises at especially and outrageously ironic moments, as did others in the audience. We applauded at the film's conclusion.
The film opens with a child in a police station, accompanied by his parents and a priest. A lawyer enters. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. "I promise this will never happen again." The police are cynical. The lawyer is smooth. The child is crushed. The parents are heartbroken. The priest appears slickly demonic. The scene is anonymous. Events like this were repeated at least a thousand times.
July, 2001. The Boston Globe acquires its first Jewish editor, Martin Baron. The Spotlight team is considering following up a case of priestly sex abuse. Slowly but surely, they discover that there are far more incidences than suspected. They discover not just one bad apple here and there. Rather, Cardinal Law has reassigned abusive priests to new parishes. Baron meets with Law. Law presents Baron with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
"Spotlight" mentions "Good Germans" – people who kept their eyes closed to the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors, and the sudden appearance of ash falling from the sky. Just so, there were many "Good Bostonians." It's sickening to confront the many who had awareness of priestly sex abuse and did nothing. Targeted kids were powerless and without allies. One had a schizophrenic mother. Some had absentee fathers. Some were gay. Many were from the wrong side of the tracks. After they were abused, some became alcoholics, drug addicts, or suicides. When SNAP activist Phil Saviano is invited to the Boston Globe's office, and he talks about a conspiracy to protect abusive priests that stretches all the way to the Vatican, he comes across as a twitchy, obnoxious, conspiracy theorist raving about Area 51 – someone easy to write off.
The most nauseating reason of all given for ignoring clergy sex abuse: money. The Globe could have covered clergy sex abuse earlier, but it didn't. Over fifty percent of the paper's subscribers are Catholics. Boston is a small town, with a lot of insular Irish Catholics who don't want anyone rocking the boat, or risking various money streams, including the church's significant charity work.
Especially poignant are the scenes where abuse survivors are encouraged to detail what happened to them. "It's not enough to say he molested you. You must give me the clinical details of exactly what happened," reporters insist, to sobbing survivors, who must then re-inhabit their worst memories.
The plot churns forward with the single line of a freight train running on schedule. I was never bored.
The priestly sex abuse crisis is not a tragedy because the Catholic Church is corrupt. The priestly sex abuse crisis is a tragedy because the Catholic Church is great. The film could have become better than it is had it included this theme. Show Catholics feeding the homeless. Show Catholics recovering from grief with the support of their faith. Show Cardinal Law for what he once was – a courageous hero in the Civil Rights movement, when that meant receiving death threats and alienating the powerful. That something so beautiful is so sullied, along with individual victims' pain, is the heart of this tragedy.
I am a lifelong, church-going Catholic. I present my reasons for being Catholic, in spite of everything, in my book "Save Send Delete." I salute, not boycott, the Globe's reporting, and films like this. Confession and redemption are gifts we shared with the world.