Sunday, September 11, 2016

Film: "Spotlight" (2015)

In the Dublin film festival earlier this year I bought a ticket to see Why Me?, a Romanian film about political corruption in the post-Communist era. I printed out my online ticket, went to the Lighthouse Cinema, showed it to the attendants and was directed into a one of their screens. I sat and watched ads and trailers, but then disaster struck. Instead of the opening credits for Why Me? coming up on screen, I was greeted by a film censor's certificate for another film entirely, one that was already on general release and which was not being shown in the film festival. This was a terrible psychic blow, which left me feeling that some kind of cosmic joke was being played at my expense. I thought of running out to try and find the film I was meant to be seeing, but feared that it would already have started. Inertia also suggested that staying in place would be the wisest course of action, a view supported by the film being one that I had heard something positive about.

The film I was seeing was of course Spotlight, the Tom McCarthy directed film about journalists investigating a systematic Catholic Church cover up of kiddy-fiddling priests in Boston. It is based on real events and features actors playing real investigative journalists who worked for the Boston Globe. I liked that it dealt with a difficult and distasteful issue like kiddy-fiddling in a manner that was neither voyeuristic nor sensational (readers will be pleased to hear that the film features no depictions of actual kiddy-fiddling).

In the film, the existence of paedophile priests is already a known thing, but the journalists uncover that their number is far greater than previously suspected, something that could only have happened if senior figures in the Church were working to hush up the extent to which these crimes were taking place; this coverup is revealed as going all the way up to Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston.

Aside from the sensitivity with which it handles a difficult subject, the film has a number of great strengths. One is the depiction of journalists at work, piecing together the story not by meeting silhouetted informants in car parks but through research and cross-referencing of published documents. The other thing that impressed me is its sense of moral ambiguity. Although we are left with no doubt that kiddy-fiddler priests and the people who shelter them are bad, other characters are revealed as more morally grey than initial impressions might suggest. The most striking example of this is the shyster lawyer who turns out to be arguably working to obtain the best deal he can for his unfortunate clients, someone who tried to blow the whistle on the scale of the paedophile priest problem but who gave up when no one was interested in hearing about it. And then there are the journalists themselves. Journalists in this kind of film are usually shining white knights, forces of unambiguous moral righteousness bringing the bad guys to book. And in this film they are like that, to an extent,but as the film goes on they (and we) become more aware of the older journalists' role in the cover-up of the paedophile priest scandal. They did not do so thanks to corruption or a desire to protect the Church, but because their prior biases could not support the idea that there really was a systemic problem with clerical paedophilia. People who asserted the true scale of the problem are dismissed as cranks, their claims buried on the inside pages of the paper if covered at all.

Aside from the fact that this terrible abuse of minors was allowed to happen, there are things that made me sad about this film. One was the fact that although set in the relatively recent past (late 1990s, early 2000s), it is like a relic of an age that is increasingly vanishing, one where newspapers were important institutions and serious investigative journalism still a thing. Overall though this is a powerful and well-made film with strong performances from various topnotch actors that I encourage people to see.

image source (Wikipedia)

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