Spotlight: Heroic but not Triumphal

I watched Spotlight, the new movie about investigative journalism, last week. It has received rave reviews and been compared to All the President’s Men, the 1976 classic movie of this genre. In Spotlight, the Boston Globe’s spotlight team of four journalists, investigates rumors of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Boston. Spotlight focuses on the tradecraft of investigative reporting. Though the investigation depicted in the movie was undertaken in 2001 – early in the Internet age – the tradecraft is entirely pre-Internet, consisting of interviews with victims, lawyers’ and even perpetrators and hard-copy documentary research. The journalists discovered in the bowels of their building annual registers of priests published by the archdiocese of Boston; probing the registers, the journalists realized that priests who were reported as “on leave” and transferred had almost always been involved in sexual abuse cases. The rigorous focus on tradecraft precluded dwelling any aspects of the journalists’ personal backstories or re-enacting any of the crimes through the use of flashbacks. Just as a faithful replica of the Washington Post newsroom was recreated on a Hollywood soundstage.

But the conspiracies under investigation were very different in these two movies and the resulting impact of the movie on the audience also very different. In All the President’s Men the crimes were disruptions of the democratic process committed over a short period of time by a small group of advisers to the president, with the question of complicity directed ultimately at the president himself. In Spotlight the crimes involved a large number of instances of sexual abuse over a long period of time, with the question of complicity initially concerning then Cardinal Bernard Law. But the network of accomplices soon grows to include lawyers representing both the church and individual victims of sexual abuse, as well as the police, who almost never filed criminal charges. It ultimately emerges near the end of the movie that the head of the Spotlight team himself had written about an article about sexual abuse in the church several years previously, but had not dug more deeply.

The audience watching All the President’s Men sees the conspirators as an evil cancer-on-the-body-politic and themselves as the virtuous “we the people.” As their awareness of the magnitude of both abuse and complicity grows in Spotlight it is increasingly difficult for the audience, however, to separate itself from the evil depicted.

It is telling that the four journalists in the Spotlight team are all Catholics, and were initially reluctant to take on this investigation. The impetus for the investigation came from a new editor hired from outside, Marty Baron, a Jew from Florida [may add more about this]. In Baron’s first meeting with Cardinal Law, Law opines that “the city flourishes when its great institutions work together.” By pressing the investigation, Baron explicitly dissents with Law’s ecumenical corporatism.

Like All the President’s Men, the depiction in Spotlight concludes in the chronological midstream of the story material. The team’s first big expose leads to the their phones ringing off the hook with victims wanting to tell their stories. We are informed by onscreen texts that in the next year, the Spotlight team produced 600 stories, 259 priests were eventually identified, and Cardinal Law was reassigned to Rome. The movie finally lists hundreds of cities in the United States and around the world where child sexual abuse has occurred in the Catholic church.

All the President’s Men ends with the satisfaction for the audience that the perpetrators have been punished and the civil order has been restored. The rewards for the two journalists and the newspaper itself are well merited. Spotlight ends with the unsettling realization that child sexual abuse of children is a widespread crime in the church for which many perpetrators and accomplices have likely not been appropriately punished, and for which victims have not been adequately compensated, if such compensation were even possible. Contemplating rewards for the journalists or newspaper is gratuitous. While the audience might admire and respect what reviewer James Berardinelli identifies as the “professionalism [that] became the fuel to break through barriers and push aside preconceptions to strike at a seemingly impervious institution,” the heinousness of the crimes investigated leaves the audience – whether Catholic or non-Catholic – deeply troubled and feeling at least vicarious shame and guilt. Spotlight contains none of All the President’s Men’s triumphalism, nor the triumphalism we often associate with heroic fables. The journalists depicted in Spotlight did great work to identify a disease, but they have far from discovered its cure.

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