It may seem odd, perhaps even inappropriate to quote from a fantasy game when discussing the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal, but this line from Dragon Age: Origins concisely sums up the enormity of the crimes, the scale on which they were committed and the collective responsibility shared by authorities, families and communities alike in shielding the perpetrators from justice.
Because media outlets – be they newspapers, magazines or websites – connect us to one another through the sharing of information and opinions, they play a role in the building and cohesion of communities that makes them all the more susceptible to the kind of social pressure that destroyed thousands of lives in Boston, Rotherham, Brooklyn and countless other places across the world where mass sexual abuse was covered up. This is something that Spotlight knows and understands all too well, and this insider’s perspective informs its every creative and storytelling decision.
Co-produced by First Look Media, the news agency founded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar in collaboration with Glenn Greenwald, Spotlight demonstrates a characteristically scrupulous, no-nonsense commitment to restituting facts and hunting for the larger truth they reveal when assembled together. This attitude is reflected by Thomas McCarthy’s straightforward, patiently-paced screenplay (co-written with The West Wing’s Josh Singer) as well as his direction; his camera is laid-back and unobtrusive, content with following dialogue beats and helping the actors get their points across. In an improved demarcation from The Station Agent’s flavourless Jarmusch imitations or the forced whimsicality that impeded The Visitor’s Dardennian ambitions, McCarthy films the unfolding horror with a restrained, sober reliance on the inherent power of the written word and his actors’ capability to channel it.
The downside to this journalistic approach to storytelling is that, like so many written news stories and articles, its focus on the subject at hand is single-minded to a point where the people involved sometimes feel incomplete. Because everything the characters do or say, even in their off-duty interactions, so blatantly relate to the case or its surrounding themes in some way, their functionally didactic nature is not as easy to ignore as it tends to be in pictures of a clearly established genre. This problem finds a correction of sorts in small, sporadic moments usually centered around peripheral characters: The complicated mixture of agony and self-deprecation with which grown-up gay victim Joe Crowley (played with devastating lucidity by Michael Cyril Creighton) speaks of his abuser and the twisted role he played in making him accept his homosexuality; an ex-priest admitting to molesting boys with the defensive embarrassment one might expect from a teenager who got caught smoking pot… In those scenes, the characters’ occupations, guilt or victimhood cease to be singular defining traits and become a sort of framing device from which emerge shadows of a fully-lived life.
The commendable diligence with which McCarthy endeavours to relate the investigation and its discoveries with accuracy and respect occasionally translates to visually unremarkable filmmaking, and knowledge of First Look Media’s role in producing the film makes its didactic aspects all the more evident. Nevertheless, Spotlight fulfills its contract with class and intelligence, thanks in no small part to the efforts of its cast. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have gotten their deserved share of plaudits, but it’s the bit players that really ground the film into the dark and shameful reality it uncovers. A reality that continues to persevere wherever institutions and ideologies too confident in their own fundamental goodness prevail in the hearts and minds of the communities they affect.