‘Spotlight’ Is a Feel-Bad Movie About Abuse, Not a Feel-Good Movie About Journalists

Thank goodness Spotlight won. As Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey made clear, Tom McCarthy’s sober, smart procedural about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the rampant sex abuse in its hometown’s Catholic archdiocese was a far better choice for the Oscars’ big trophy than many of the other front-runners. Personally, it was my favorite film of the year, and not just because I’m a journalist who lived in Boston for a time.

Yes, Spotlight is a journalism movie. And yes, it’s very much a Boston movie, intractably so. But it’s also so much deeper, and greater. As someone who has written extensively about rape culture and seen a horrible sex abuse scandal rock my very secular alma mater, I strongly feel that the film’s themes stretch far beyond the Charles River, and even beyond the fluorescent-lit, cubicle-strewn newsrooms of America’s dying newspaper industry.

It’s tempting for critics and journalists to tout the way the film makes their profession seem relevant and crucial, and Spotlight absolutely does demonstrate the importance of thorough, slow journalistic investigating, far away from the deadlines and celebrity scandals of the web environment. Without the freedom to roam through archives and around Boston’s streets, those Globe reporters never would have made all the connections they did, or shown how high up and far wide the sex abuse scandal went.

But saying Spotlight is “about” the awesomeness of investigative journalism is like saying The Lord of the Rings is “about” the long-distance walking stamina of hobbits. Journalism is the film’s tool, its entryway into a cave that contains something much bigger, much darker, much less uplifting about the nature of power and dominance. These truths include the nearly impenetrable fortress that springs up around institutions when they gain power, and the ensuing aura of silence and complicity that captures nearly everybody.

The film chooses wisely to focus on the reporting process rather than dwelling in an overlong manner on the stories of the survivors, a choice which helps it avoid being both exploitative and impossibly depressing. Yet at the same time, its extremely well-chosen interviews between reporters and victims and its repeated vignettes of reluctance — internal and external — indicate that this isn’t just another story showing dogged reporters facing off against a corrupt institution. Instead, they’re facing both that institution and all its everyday protectors, including themselves.

There’s no question that the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal was particularly widespread and institutionalized for many structural and theological reasons (celibacy, doctrine, and a centralized authority structure). But as the music world reels from the Kesha story and we hear about new sex abuse and harassment scandals in progressive and entertainment PR firms alike, as prestigious prep schools and Catholic schools are engulfed by abuse allegations, as millionaire entertainers are accused of the same behavior as rabbis and priests, as campus rape awareness grows, and so on and so forth, the example of Spotlight shines a light on every such story, not just one. In each instance, aspects are similar: people knew but didn’t know. People looked the other way. Victims didn’t even bother speaking out because they were sure they’d be disbelieved, or felt alone.

Thus, the film’s less heroic characters — from the initially-hesitant editors Ben Bradlee Jr. and Robby Robinson (played by John Slattery and Michael Keaton) to the stonewalling lawyers and parishioners and diocese officials — are relevant every time someone with good intentions and a good heart says, “That person seemed sketchy, but I didn’t ask what was going on,” or ” I heard some stories but I assumed they were just rumors” or even, “So-and-so is a genius and means so much to his fans, I’d rather have his contributions to society continue than see him be brought to justice.”

The point is: there’s a little bit of Boston in every town and city, a little bit of Spotlight‘s particular Archdiocese in every institution or system with sway over a community, from the large to the small — and most damningly, there’s a little bit of those lawyers and trustees (and reporters) inside of all of us, even the staunch feminists.

How many of us have walked off a job without blowing the whistle while knowing there was some kind of sexual harassment or hostile workplace being left behind? How many of us have heard about someone’s bad behavior from a friend and shrugged it off because we like the person too much? How many of us have heard an allegation about someone in our industry or community and felt an instinctive confirmation bias, as if we always knew that person was “off,” but never cared to look into it, make ourselves receptive to those who were looking for a sympathetic ear, or speak up, simply because we were trying to get by ourselves?

In Spotlight, the one person who sees what’s going on the whole time is Stanley Tucci’s character, the lawyer Mitchell Garabedian. He is very much dismissed by the world as crazy. And in a sense he is. He’s a cantankerous, outside-the-system fringe actor who seems to have given up everything, even his own sense of humor and happiness. This is the cost of being fully awoken to injustice: total exile.

And as Mark Ruffalo’s dogged reported Mike Rezendes shows, both with the slow decline of his life into disarray and with one screaming, near-hysterical monologue, the more aware and committed you are to such a truth, the closer you are to becoming like Garabedian. Even Robinson, Keaton’s jolly Boston schmoozer, who realizes he initially slept on this big story, ends up losing friendships and essentially his position in society when he finally decides to pursue the story to the end. To fight these kinds of battles, Spotlight shows us, isn’t to become the hero of a film; it’s to become a pariah.

And what is the end result, the big victory? Is it justice, or simply exposure? The end credits’ long, long list of cities where similar abuse scandals unfolded seems to indicate that a satisfying ending is not necessarily a happy one, and that for every story of abuse that ends up on the front page, there are many more that never even make it to print.