No Light in the Valley of the Shadow
This piece will delve into the topic of sexual abuse, which Spotlight, an extraordinary film, addresses head-on while fully respecting its victims. This is a very sensitive topic, so this is a warning if this is a subject you don’t want to read.
I have heard many comparisons of Spotlight to All the President’s Men. On the surface, the comparisons make sense. Both films are about the need for journalism as a champion for decency in the face seemingly insurmountable opposition. Both films approach their stories with an unobtrusive visual style, the camera moving only to show us the lay of the land (or, more often, the newsroom), with non-stop dialogue and performances tilted firmly towards realism over showiness. But Spotlight, I think, is the better film. It is more vital and vibrant. Its subject matter demands it. All the President’s Men is about a farcical presidential scandal, and the presidency desperately failing to cover its tracks. Spotlight is about an epidemic of unspeakable evil, hidden successfully for decades by people throughout the world in positions of influence and power, as the number of victims mounted and found their pleas ignored at every turn. At one point, a character in the film calls “the lucky ones” those who still have their lives.
All the President’s Men entertained me. Spotlight shook me and summoned from my own past shadows I thought I’d long buried. I nearly walked out of the theatre at one point because I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack. I cried in the car driving home from the theatre. The tendrils of sexual abuse in the church barely grazed me in comparison to how so many of its victims suffered. My experience with it has haunted me for years, and I was one of the lucky ones.
When I was 15 a priest turned a confession into a half-hour attempt to get me to narrate his sexual fantasies. It was a half-hour of pornographic sexual humiliation disguised as saving my soul. Never mind that a tenet of confession is trusting someone to examine their own conscience and be honest. He wanted increasingly prurient details, and when it was clear I was befuddled, inexperienced, naive, and terrified, clear that his fantasies did not remotely line up with my experiences (which amounted to reading the SI Swimsuit issue, which was all I had to confess that day), he fed me the things he wanted me to say. If I said no for too long he would warn me that I had committed sacrilege and was bound for hell if I didn’t listen to him.
After more than half an hour of this, he suddenly muttered the absolution and sent me on my way. I left the confessional feeling filthy, like my soul was beyond saving, like I’d been dragged, my limbs bound, helpless and with no recourse.
This experience still haunts me. For years after the incident, I blamed myself for it, and thus for all the discomfort that followed. It profoundly altered my ability to talk and communicate about sex, which has ended relationships. When I’m alone with someone I sometimes get transported to that dark confessional, and hear his voice ringing in my ears. I still no longer express any deep feelings with ease.
And I know, despite all that, that I am absolutely one of the lucky ones. I had one, single incident, and it was entirely spoken words, not physical contact. Those 30 minutes in the confessional shaped me in ways that few 30 minute periods of my life have. And I was one of the lucky ones.
Somehow, for years it never occurred to me that what I experienced was abuse. Somehow, Spotlight galvanized my feelings about that incident in ways that nothing else has for 13 years. By realizing how much worse it could have been, I also realized that I was blameless that day. That a predator used me for his own enjoyment. That I did nothing to merit his treatment of me. I can’t recall the last time a work of art had such a deep, searing effect on me.
Director Tom McCarthy takes the best possible approach to this material. No attempts to deepen it; it speaks for itself. No flashiness. He assembles a remarkable cast and lets them disappear into the team of journalists that unearthed the horrors of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis.
I am often wary of movies that assemble a baseball-sized roster of A-listers. A huge cast of big names is not necessarily indicative of great material, or of scrupulous, careful casting. Spotlight contains a few A-listers; Mark Ruffalo is an Avenger, and Michael Keaton is making the most of his post-Birdman resurgence. But the point here is that none of these actors makes their parts about themselves. Some movies demand star presence. This movie demands acting that feels as authentic as possible. Every single actor in the cast achieves that. It’s a remarkable feat. I have never worked as a newsroom writer, but I’ve seen the Boston Globe offices and know a few Globe writers. The mood and tone feel right. The haggard bustle and functional wardrobe of tie-less button-down shirts and wrinkled khakis.
The Globe’s Spotlight team is such an institution in the world of investigative journalism that I wondered if they’d ever had a film made about them before. But even the Globe isn’t let entirely off the hook as the scandal unfolds; more than once, the team of Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are reminded that victims of priest abuse attempted to contact the Globe years before the events of the film, and were largely ignored. The Spotlight team only takes the story because a new editor, the previously LA-based Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes in with a fresh set of eyes and sees through the years of local, institutional benefit of the doubt that the largely Catholic (practicing or not) community has given the Church.
This story broke 13 years ago. It has lost none of its power. The outrage I felt at the end of the film was almost immediately replaced with grief and resignation. Before the final credits, a huge list of cities affected by priest sex abuse is shown. After being overwhelmed by the events that are unearthed just in Boston, this is a jolt back to reality. This happened, and it was protected with silence and complacency. Children across the world weren’t simply failed; they were preyed upon, and the Church went out of its way to keep them in harm’s way. Spotlight isn’t a showy film. Don’t mistake that for not having a heartbeat. It burns with fury. It just doesn’t shout it at you. Like good journalism, it digs deep and lays out its story. That story is as vast as the church’s policies on celibacy and history of secrecy, and as personal as a victim pausing after an interview and saying “you can use my name”. It lets the events speak for themselves. That’s the only way I imagine this story could be told.