The heroism of facts
Best Picture Oscar-winner ‘Spotlight’ steers clear of triumphalism

Spotlight won the Oscar for Best Picture at yesterday’s 88th Academy Awards ceremony, on the same day that Cardinal George Pell, giving evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, said that the Catholic church “had a predisposition not to believe” child victims who told of their abuse as long ago as the 1970s. “At that stage,” Pell said, “the instinct was more to protect the institution, the community of the church, from shame”.

It is this ruinous instinct – ruinous to the lives of countless children who suffered – that Spotlight examines. The film – which also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – is based on a real-life investigative journalism team at the Boston Globe, known as Spotlight, who, during the early 2000s, helped to uncover decades’ worth of clerical sexual abuse in the Boston Catholic diocese. But the film is not self-congratulatory when it comes to the power or role of journalism. Indeed, what Spotlight suggests is that the media, as much as any other institution, has often found it easier to turn away than to pay proper attention to this now global scandal.

Spotlight opens with a quiet and efficient prelude, set in 1976: at a local police station, a priest is under questioning for the abuse of child parishioners. Over the course of a few minutes we see how police, law attorneys and an uninterested media combine to protect the institutional power of the Catholic church in a historically Catholic city. The church itself, we will gradually learn, actively covered up long-term clerical abuse by moving abusive priests from parish to parish, but institutions outside the church operated more with a kind of inertia, allowing habit to supplant an alert moral conscience. The effects are equally disastrous.

The film skips forward a quarter-century to mid-2001, where, at the Boston Globe, the Spotlight team – led by self-described “player-coach” Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), and answerable to editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) – begin to turn their attention to abuse within the church. Investigative reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) work together with Robinson out of a drab basement office. But it takes the arrival, upstairs, of newly appointed chief editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to prompt Spotlight into action on the story. Baron has picked up on allegations that Cardinal Law, then Archbishop of Boston, knew of at least one abusive priest in the Boston diocese and failed to act. Baron wants to know if the allegation is true. From this first line of inquiry the scale of the investigation grows.

Spotlight is structured like a police procedural (only with journalists, not cops, in the interrogative role), which means that viewers follow developments in the investigation alongside the onscreen reporters. The effect of this is to return a genuine sense of shock to a scandal that has been public knowledge for 15 years now. The film is finely paced and its tone carefully controlled: Schreiber’s performance as Baron, the film’s outsider (a Jewish editor in a Catholic town), is exemplary – dry, understated, with no hint of unearned pride. The Globe journalists are competent and dedicated; they wear crumpled slacks and snatch their meals at staff farewell parties and vending machines, and yet they have systematically failed over the years to uncover a widespread and tacitly acknowledged pattern of clerical abuse. As Pfieffer observes to Robinson, late in the film, “It’s like everybody already knows the story.”

For these journalists the stakes are more than professional: each was raised a Catholic and has some kind of ongoing, if complicated, connection to Catholicism. Spotlight advances a rigorous critique of the Catholic church as an institution while refraining from any attack on religious faith per se. In one scene, Rezendes and Pfieffer mourn their shattered belief in the church: “I think I figured that one day I would actually go back,” says Rezendes. I found the scene resonant, as many lapsed or ex-Catholics probably will: a Catholic upbringing never really leaves you, and it is devastating to know that one’s faith, or the residue of it, is bound up with the inexcusable corruption and wrongdoing of an institution.

Spotlight is also an elegy for the practice of investigative journalism, set at the last moment prior to the almost total collapse of print news. There’s a great exterior shot of the Boston Globe office and, looming over the road, a billboard for the online media company AOL. If there is any heroism in Spotlight then it’s a very humble one: the heroism of getting the facts right, which seems, today, almost too much to ask of mainstream newspapers. At the film’s conclusion there is no triumph, only more work.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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