The best film of the year – as confirmed by my friend Oscar from Hollywood– is one without explosions, without car chases, without a love story, without superheroes, without perfectly shaped asses in tight dresses, without shootouts.
It simply shows people at work.
Not even exceptional people. No astronauts, no snipers, no circus artists. Only reporters. Not war reporters dogging bullets or glitzy Hollywood gossip paparazzi, just normal reporters working for a local newspaper.
Spotlight shows the real story a team of four Boston Globe reporters who investigate child molestation by Catholic priests and the cover-up by the diocese. While everyone knows that the journalists will be successful in the end and will make the world a safer place for children, the film mercilessly depicts how reluctant they were to pursue the story, that they originally didn’t see the bigger picture and that they had to be pushed to do their job by a new editor (Marty Baron, now with the Washington Post).
None of the reporters is portrayed as an exceptionally bright investigative star as a fictional movie would do it, none of them has to go undercover for a year, none of them risks his or her life. Instead, Spotlight shows the drudgery of hours spent in a basement archive, of going through court filings or microfiche by hand, and – the technological highlight – compiling an Excel spreadsheet.
Yet, as viewers we are moved to nostalgia about “the good old days of print journalism”. There must be something that we miss about this kind of reporting. In my mind, this something is time. Or patience, to be precise. The investigation drags on for many months before the Boston Globe finally breaks the story, although one of the reporters is getting impatient himself, even thinking that the paper may want to bury the story.
Nowadays, when most writers and readers would believe that timeliness is of the essence, this luxury – which is the only way to achieve quality and accuracy, let alone stylistic grace – is almost not available anymore. But in the rare instances when it is, good work can be done, as the revelation and analysis of the Panama Papers show.
It is fitting that this message is conveyed in a film which is equally based on substance and quality instead of speed and effects. Spotlight is among the best-ever films about journalism, and I personally found it even better than the classic All the President’s Men. Watching interviews with the real Spotlight journalists, it is also striking how well the actors portrayed the demeanor of their respective characters. They must have been following them around for weeks in order to copy all their quirks.
But unfortunately, not only the journalists are authentic. The victims are real too. While the film focuses on the investigative work, it does a very good job in outlining the scope and the depth of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal. It shows how the Catholic Church worked like a criminal organization to protect its members, sending them on holiday or to a different parish each time allegations of abuse were substantiated. A new parish with new children. It points out how priests systematically prey on vulnerable children from broken families, how they groom their victims. It quotes Church-internal studies according to which 6% of Catholic priests are pedophile.
None of this is limited to Boston or to the United States, of course. It happens in every country in which there is a Catholic church or monastery or school. I have watched the movie in South America and while the film lists a few South American dioceses at the end in which scandals have been uncovered, I cannot help but wonder how many more children get molested here, where the Catholic Church has a much stronger standing, more members and more influence.
Especially perfidious is a policy which is only briefly touched upon in the film: some molesting priests, who become untenable in the US, are sent to South America to get them out of the way. The Church didn’t think that there were no children in South America to be molested, it didn’t think that the priest would suddenly behave, it merely calculated that Latin Americans wouldn’t file a lawsuit – or maybe that the Church would have other methods to make allegations “go away” in heavily Catholic South American countries with judiciaries that are sometimes less robust than in other countries. After all, money is not an issue. In other words, they were thinking strategically like a criminal organization, like drug traffickers, like the mafia.