Sunday, January 29, 2017

Film Notes: Spotlight

Spotlight is the 2015 film written by Tom McCarty and Josh Singer, about The Boston Globe's investigation into institutional child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts. Making a good film about journalism, which says something important, and does so in a compelling way is not easy. The most vivid newspaper stories are still essentially produced by a person sitting typing, with the resulting words being edited and spell-checked meticulously, which is hardly a spectator sport. Spotlight, however manages to make a gripping movie about the investigative and editorial process which led to the publication of a truly landmark piece of journalism.

The Spotlight team produced regular columns for The Globe, covering all manner of subjects, researched in substantial depth, sometimes over long periods of time. The film describes the way in which the team begin to unearth a series of sorry truths about the Catholic Church, the City of Boston and finally themselves. The investigation begins with a piece about a paedophile priest who was brought to trial, Fr John Geoghan. Interviews with victims suggest that he was not an isolated individual, but part of a large group of child-abusers who had infiltrated the church and used it as a means to access children to prey upon. Finally they unearth eighty-seven guilty names from within the Boston Archdiocese alone. Researching and publishing such grim truth turns out to be difficult, because the church was but one element of a Boston elite, who had spent decades ignoring the problem in the hope that it would go away. The city's legal system, is thoroughly implicated in the cover-up which Spotlight unearths, in which errant priests were moved from parish to parish to 'start-again', while pay-offs with gagging-clauses were agreed with any victim who spoke out. Perhaps as we have seen with Savile at the BBC in this country, there were countless people who knew, but did nothing. The final uncomfortable truth the Spotlight team discover is that they too had been sent information years before which they had failed to act upon; and that they too had been drawn into the web of silent cowardice in the face of power. This film concludes with both the abuse, and the institutional cover-up being exposed, leading to a massive shake-up of the church, the city, and the resignation of a Cardinal - and the phones ringing around the clock as countless further victims and survivors come forward.

In his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies argues that this is exactly the type of journalism we are fast losing, because dropping sales have meant falling revenues, which have led to slashed budgets, reduced staff and the regression into what he calls mere 'churnalism'. 'Churnalism' is the term he uses to describe dispirited overworked journalists merely hacking press releases into unchecked, unsubstantiated almost worthless copy. The obvious question is, who speaks truth to power today? The 'powers' have obviously changed, the days of churches being part of the cultural hierarchy are long gone; but the new managers of the zeitgeist, and moneyed classes today do not have brave journalistic teams holding them to account. Rather, the UK libel laws, seem rigged in favour of the rich to precisely prevent such scrutiny. If you want a detailed understanding of the way that journalism today is stifled in this way, read the section on 'money' in Nick Cohen's "You Can't Read This Book".

The roles of the core investigative team at Spotlight, are really well performed by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. They benefit from good direction and editing, some very well observed set-design and era-appropriate details, and an exceptional script. There are a few especially telling moments in the film. Notable amongst these were some of the interviews with (now adult) victims, which were harrowing to watch. Not in terms of the lurid details, which are mostly referenced indirectly and handled with some care by the filmmakers. Some crime based films take a salacious delight in the horror of the offence, but Spotlight avoids this temptation; in order to more soberly consider the long-term effects of abuse upon its' survivors.

Within the movie the subject of 'spiritual abuse' is also raised but not really defined. There seem to be two aspects to this within the film. The first is that within Catholic theology, the priest is an intermediary between people and God, and so acts apparently with God's authority. Victims spoke of
being unable to fight back or resist as they had inculcated the idea that to resist a priest was to defy God. The second aspect of the spiritual abuse raised, is that abuse by the church robs people of their faith - something precious, defining which gives their lives meaning, which is ripped away from them. Mark Ruffallo and Rachel McAdams characters both indicate that this investigation marks the final end of their remaining Catholicism. Both of these issues are worthy of some comment, because the common theme which unites them is that the church is not God.

I write this review from the perspective of a Christian who believes that God does not mediate his grace to humanity through an institution; but through a person: Jesus Christ. The elevation of a priest into a divine mediatorial role, doesn't just give him the opportunity to abuse (though that is the context in this film), but to smear the good name of God with whatever faults the man or his institution has. We should note that such thinking can all to easily permeate churches who would not ever actually endorse such hierarchical theology and might even include some statement about the 'priesthood of all believers' in their basis of faith.  Presenting a veneer of respectability, hiding a morass of wickedness can cause nothing but long-lasting damage to the cause one is seeking to protect. Conversely truth is always liberating.

Spotlight then is a film which calls us not merely to disgust, anger or a knee-jerk anti-Catholicism. Rather, it demands that we do not hide wrongdoing, but call it out for what it is, both in ourselves and in powerful institutions wherever it occurs. Likewise, it demands that we are rigorous in all our child-protection procedures in churches, schools, youth-clubs, sports-clubs and the like as the damage done to individuals by systematic failures in this regard are appalling. Finally Spotlight calls us to seek a free, open press who can investigate the great, the good and the powerful, without fear.

Spotlight is a thought-provoking and disturbing film which exposes dark truths and does so, quite brilliantly.

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