Saw Spotlight, the movie about the investigative reporting team that uncovered the priest sex abuse scandal in Boston. Was a pretty good film. Extremely well-acted. And was a great procedural, all about the tiny, methodical sifting that it takes to investigate a story. This movie held my interest, and that’s way more than most movies do.
But for all that, it wasn’t a great movie. And I hate to harp on this, but the reason was that the counter-narrative was weak. Basically, the interesting through-line in the movie was that a lot of people knew about the sex abuse. The church, for one thing, all the way up to the Cardinal. But also a number of lawyers and reporters and other people around town. This was not a secret. People knew. The seed of the counter narrative is: “Why did they stay silent?”
And that’s a question that this movie attempted to grapple with, but I don’t think it was altogether successful. The reason obviously wasn’t direct pressure by the Church. The Church is wealthy and powerful, but it’s not exactly the Mafia. The people who came forward in this movie weren’t sued into oblivion. They didn’t lose their homes and their jobs. Rather, they were ostracized. The Church exerted a tremendous community pressure upon them. And it’s the nature of this community pressure that went unexamined in this movie.
Throughout the movie I kept waiting for the big obstacle: the thing that would make me think this story wouldn’t get broken. But it never came. There was no moment at which the Church attacked. There were a few times when there were sly hints (hey, why don’t you drop this?) but those hints were always simply ignored: they seemed utterly toothless.
I think that might be where this movie is crippled by being a true story. In a novel, those hints would’ve been followed up by direct pressure. There’d have been antagonists and a direct confrontation of forces. Here there was none of that. And the result was not just narrative slackness, but also thematic emptiness. I can honestly tell you that, having come out of this movie, I do not know why so many people stayed quiet about this case. I think what it comes down to, as simple as this may sound, is that they trusted the church.
For instance, a through-line in the movie is the fact that all of these documents and disclosures got sent to the newspaper several years ago, but were ignored. Time after time, witnesses are like, “We gave all this to you! But you sat on it!”
And why did that happen? It’s because the reporters didn’t believe there was a story. And why didn’t they believe there was a story? It’s because the real story here wasn’t the abuse: it was the cover-up. And until the cover-up was revealed, no one in Boston believed the Church was capable of that kind of systematic cover-up.
But that’s something I am bringing to the movie. There is nothing in the movie itself that in any way reveals to me the presence of that trust. And I understand why. The loss of trust is a difficult thing to dramatize in a movie, and in many ways the procedural format is not the best vehicle for it, because the doggedness of the investigator presupposes a lack of trust.