Movie Review: Spotlight
By Ben Gruchow
November 27, 2015
Spotlight has an intractable pull on us almost from the first shot. It expands its true-life story naturally, letting pieces unfold with a type of rhythm and steady tension that always hints at a bigger, deeper, more unsettling narrative. That this subject matter is being addressed in the context of a nationwide theatrical release is surprising; that it’s approached with the frankness and clarity on display here is remarkable.
The narrative in question concerns molestation of underage boys and girls by John Geoghan, a member of the Boston Catholic clergy. Although Geoghan’s actions have already been published by the time the movie starts, the story returns to it courtesy of Spotlight - a unit of the Boston Globe newspaper that runs investigative operations undercover, usually over long periods of time. Spotlight is assigned to Geoghan by incoming editor Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), although Baron takes care to frame it as a request for Spotlight - and specifically Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) as the leader of the unit - to pick the story of their own volition. An earlier conversation between the two, in which Schreiber implicates in vague terms Spotlight being cut from the paper, underscores the request.
Baron’s also behind the decision that drives most of the film’s main story; rather than attempt to bring the hammer down on a single priest or a single Cardinal in regard to that priest - the logical presumption is that the Church would bury the story and seek retribution - the goal should be to expose the systemic corruption that allows priests to continue to serve despite multiple instances of abuse.
This is a safe target, relatively speaking; it enables the film to posit that the actions of the priests involved aren’t merely the result of individuals making decisions, but also of a rigid and incredibly powerful organization that seeks to protect its own name above anything else, including justice. By keeping the individuals themselves largely off-screen and focusing on the institution, it would already have been able to do this without implicitly excusing the abuse itself. What is shown of the individuals involved is limited to dialogues with several of the victims (now adults of varying ages), and an abbreviated conversation with one of the priests himself. The victims must provide not just the reality of what happened to the journalists, but the detail, and these scenes are harrowing for the simple content, although - strictly speaking - there’s not much of it.
These scenes point the story in a different direction, about the emotional cost of what’s been happening and the mental and emotional state of the individuals involved. This is a direction that the movie pointedly doesn’t follow, for pragmatic reasons, and it more or less clarifies this with Walter’s utterance of the line of dialogue that ends the movie’s trailer: there is a narrative about mental and emotional damage, and there is a narrative about the corruption of the system, and one of the stories is going to be told. It’s the more indirect of the two, and the less interesting; we know what happens from a procedural standpoint, but not from an emotional one.