Spotlight, by far the best movie of the year might also have been the most divisive. But Thomas McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe reporting team who broke into the now infamous story of widespread abuse in the Catholic Church carries an unlikely salve for souls scarred and wearied by political polarization and culture warring.
Spotlight’s plot–one of the biggest scandals in American history–contains all the elements of a hot-button culture war story: religion used to prey on the weak, institutional cover-ups, faith destroyed by hypocrisy, cultures of silence embedded in private life, etc. The implications are enough to supply a year’s worth of Slate columns with ammunition to discredit the religious, patriarchal orders, and critics of the sexual revolution. And yet Spotlight wastes no time grandstanding for an ideological narrative. How does it accomplish this feat?
The secret lies in what McCarthy’s film is actually about. This is not actually a film about the Catholic Church, but about a newsroom. That’s not to say that you don’t find out a lot about the Church’s institutional failures along with the reporters, but the thrill of the film is not its tragedy or melodrama–a scene where Mark Ruffalo confesses to Rachel McAdams that the story has shattered his precarious faith packs an emotional punch, but it is not the focal point of the film. The money shots consist of reporters piecing facts together, scanning documents, and uncovering buried connections. We feel the thrill of their search for the truth. The tragic reality is left for others to interpret.
Dogged adherence to the facts actually makes for a riveting tale. Spotlight paints a picture of the priest abuse scandals that is too complicated for an editorial. Certain details don’t exactly make progressives look good. The Cardinal who covered for the offending priests trumpets his liberal credentials as an old-line Civil Rights sympathizer. Later he is pictured speaking out against anti-Islamic sentiment in the wake of 9/11. One of the pedophile priests is described as a “street priest” with long hair–the very image of a post-Vatican II liberal, lax on sexual ethics, too hip for Church teaching. And then of course, there are details that will (and ought to!) unsettle conservatives. The expert they consult posits that priestly celibacy is probably an important factor in explaining the “widespread psychological phenomenon” of priestly pedophilia. Perhaps the most disturbing element is the culture of silence that benefits the abusers, a culture which is enforced, often most rigorously, by the families of the abused. This pervasive reality cuts deeply into the family values the Church promotes.
Even amid all this red meat, Spotlight keeps its cool and does not descend into demagoguery. A lesser film trying to stay neutral would get lost in giving even equal time to competing perspectives. McCarthy chooses not to even be distracted by the politics that would be bruised by his film, and insodoing, it ends up being free of easy judgments and cheap melodrama. No points are scored, no “gotcha” moments indulged. This is the humblest movie ever made about the breaking of a devastating scandal. Even with substantive scenes depicting how the revelations impacted the faith of the individual reporters on the case, nothing is forced or ham fisted. By making a movie about people sticking to facts, Spotlight, well, sticks to the facts. The result is a balanced, hard-hitting, and necessary film, just like the original news story the film is concerned with.
By focusing on the frequently tedious, morally fraught, and ultimately riveting process of discovering the truth about something, Spotlight manages to confront important social and cultural issues without resorting to ideological scapegoating. No doubt these virtues come also from the story the team selects to investigate, but there therein lies a lesson as well. Thomas McCarthy has not made a film challenging people’s thoughts or beliefs. That sort of posturing would sully the purity of the Spotlight team’s reporting. But the film does not refrain from comment on those matters either, it simply follows the story where it goes and refrains from unsubstantiated speculation. In Spotlight discovering the truth is more exciting than commenting on it. Here’s hoping that the blogger style journalism that dominates the news cycle in our digital age sees Spotlight with an eye toward their own practice. The truth needs little help. It speaks for itself.