Spotlight

Spotlight

I have watched this so many times. I don't bother logging it. Half the time, it's on as background noise as I bury my head in multiple distractions from the stress of the pandemic. Apparently, being OCD/germaphobic during a pandemic is difficult in its own special way, and I have not handled it well. So I've buried myself in noise. TV shows, bad movies that I can watch without much focus, movies I've seen over and over again, comfort food literal and figurative, video games I haven't played since I was a kid (I don't do new things), and social media. Every time I think I've turned a corner, a new variant hits the news, another spike happens, someone I know gets COVID, I have to go on an airplane (ugh jesus fuck), something happens to reinforce the broken coping mechanisms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, depression, and anxiety that slam shut the doors in my mind that allow me to... interact.

So I put on Spotlight a lot. It's a movie that is just good enough to be interesting and just... standard, average, normal enough to require little effort. It's a little offensive in its watered down attempt to half-assedly critique bourgeois news and a little heartening to see people give a damn about victims of abuse. It's just not enough to be demanding. It isn't the intensity and power of Gaslight, the personal harrow of Suzanne, Suzanne, or triggering and disgusting like too many films worth naming. It's just an okay movie about people exposing powerful men and the damage they engaged in and enabled and hid and benefited from. It won Best Picture, so obviously it's middle-of-the-road. It has Mark Ruffalo, so obviously it's middle-of-the-road. But it's comfort food now, and so it becomes elevated in my personal experience.

Its strengths are in its sympathy for the victims. It shows a queer victim and a straight victim, both men, and it doesn't judge either one. It shows their pain, even as adults; it shows their trauma and the shame they've internalized and the fact that they've managed to survive. It acknowledges that child sexual abuse kills. It acknowledges that the abuse went beyond merely bodily interaction, involving emotional damage that altered lives, sometimes beyond the ability of capitalist society to heal enough to protect the life of the victim. It acknowledges that it's not about being gay; it's about being a predator. Abusers are not created merely by having been traumatized themselves (though that is part of some of their stories), but by a system that enables and empowers abusive behavior.

The strength of this film is that it acknowledges that there is a system that needs to be exposed. It doesn't appropriately name that system as capitalism, but it goes further than just saying it's a bad priest or even a bad cardinal. And that's something. The list of locations at the end, the sheer number of cases mentioned, is a condemnation of a system that spans the entire world. The church, which has been around since before capitalism, is a major part of it, but it has become a tool of the modern capitalist ruling class, and thus, in this day and age, the system that must be exposed is capitalism. A few hundred years ago, we'd be talking about kings and feudal lords and the children of serfs.

Its other strengths are its apparent attempt to make the city of Boston a character, a strongly sensed setting. It's in accents and the constant concern over who is from Boston and who isn't; it's in the locations mentioned and the namedropping. When films do this with New Orleans, it's often superficial and corny and inaccurate; I can't speak to how it comes across here to Bostonians, but how it differs from the way it's often done with a New Orleans-set film is that part of the reason that they focus on Boston here is to show how the cover up is enabled by the powers-that-be in Boston. It shows how it's part of the Boston culture, and how that culture is weaponized, indoctrinated into the local population to work against them and allow this kind of violence against children to flourish.

The other facet of this I like is the humor. This is not a subject matter that lends itself well to humor, but the jokes never come at the expense of abuse victims or whatever. They come subtly. On rewatch, Ben Braddlee Jr's outrage at the number of priests each time a new number is revealed (13? 90?!) is less an escalating plot and more a running gag. It's funny because, on the 400th watch, you know he's just gonna be taken aback again in 30 minutes after they talk to Sipe, or after they get the confirming documents, etc. John Slattery is good at acting with his face, a talent you would think was fundamental but that too many popular actors don't know a thing about; his reaction shots are always a treasure. Or there's the moment when the phone call drops just after Sipe says the church will try to silence the Spotlight team; it's never commented on again and not really acknowledged. It's just good, funny, grim timing. It might even be a true event; I don't know. But it cracks me up every time. (And the cardinal giving Baron a copy of the catechism is, I would imagine, probably very true and also a hilarious and scathing characterization of arrogance and power.)

The weaknesses remain rooted in this film's bourgeois origins. It is a film made by a major film studio, designed for a prestigious bourgeois award, based on reporters working for a major bourgeois newspaper, exposing a major bourgeois institution's abuses.

It goes light on the criticism of the Boston Globe's role in covering up the scandal for decades; it doesn't analyze Baron or other higher ups' motivations for going forward with the story when they did. (And apparently, the story that Robinson buried a decade before Spotlight exposed the scandal really happened, but Spotlight didn't uncover it--the scriptwriters did; they put that in the film. The Globe would have left that buried forever.) They show and mention the Globe's role in the cover up, and it's handled better than I felt the first time I watched but... it's not nearly enough. The Globe is a major imperialist propaganda outlet. It is the voice of the bourgeoisie in Boston. It played a bigger role than this film or any bourgeois source will ever admit.

It says outright that Macleish benefited from the abuse, used it as a "cottage industry" (pretend I typed that in Keaton's Boston accent performance), and it implicates the anonymous source (named a generic "Jim Sullivan" in the film) and others, but it neither calls for nor achieves any consequences for the lawyers who preyed on the ones the priests preyed on.

Priests abusing children has been known about for decades. I remember people mentioning and joking about it when I was a small child, so as far back as the 80s. It was in the atmosphere around the church; it was a strange threat. I was never an altar boy or particularly close to a priest. My family was half-assed about religion even before we all more or less completely lapsed (I think at least one sister is still a believer?). I was never sexually molested by a priest or anyone. But I am no stranger to abuse; I was no stranger to abuse then, though I couldn't have identified it as such, though I had no language. Abuse of children by the church was Known decades ago. I would be shocked if it did not still occur today.

What has changed since the Spotlight team exposed the systemic cover ups, exposed what everyone already knew? Credit to them for making it impossible to ignore, at least for a while, but what changed? I have read that the church made it harder to become a priest, added psychological testing or some such thing. I've heard that the church has become more watchful, more intent upon doing something. But the church is still one of the richest, most powerful institutions in the entire world. They still are one of the largest landowners in the world. They are still in bed with the bourgeoisie of every country they operate in. While newspapers might be more willing to write on predator-priests, there are plenty of smaller ones who wouldn't dare and plenty of bigger ones who would have to be pushed to do it. Perhaps after this exposure and other changes in the struggle, people are more willing to come forward. But has there been any real consequences? Some of the priests have gone to jail, but many have not. Many were already dead. Many died before they could face justice. Many more are still probably undetected.

The film presents the Spotlight team's work as a game-changing exposure of the church's systemic protection of these abusers, but the game didn't change as much as the feelgood Oscar-winner film genre wants us to feel. Not think, even. They just want you to feel like there was some justice in the world. And that's part of the comfort food appeal of this; it's just a fantasy, though. As nice as it is to hear Ruffalo scream "they did it to kids!" in an over-the-top tantrum, as nice as it is to pretend someone powerful gives a flying fuck, it's just a fantasy. But the fantasy is what makes it a comfort at this time.

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