I once found myself engaged in a lively debate, which was centred upon that perplexing question of why cinema exists and what purpose does it serve. My friend argued, vehemently, that films exist purely to entertain, citing the likes of The Rock and almost every Schwarzenegger film from the 1980’s as proof that his thesis was sound. I listened politely and then began my counter, deciding against arguing films are not constructs aimed purely at entertaining. Films are of course entertaining, they have to be as it’s in their DNA, from George Melies to Spielberg, cinema has dazzled us and will continue to do so. But films also ask questions, they educate and inform us; I argued that entertainment is not the sole purpose of a film – films are often something… more. I put it like this; I wouldn’t call Schindler’s List entertaining. I wouldn’t call Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible entertaining, just as I wouldn’t call Song for a Raggy Boy entertaining. And I wouldn’t call Spotlight entertaining either, it is far more important than that.
Directed by Tom McCarthy, the spotlight of the title is the name of the investigative department of the Boston Globe newspaper, which, in 2001/2002 wrote an expose uncovering the volume of paedophile priests in Boston but also the cover-ups perpetrated by the Catholic Church to keep these priests out of prison and on the altar. Very few films are must-see and while I can’t constitute what makes a film must-see, Spotlight is certainly a film that is required viewing for not only Irish people, or those of the Catholic faith or even the Catholic detractors, it is essential because, at its core, it addresses the truth behind the old adage – all that evil requires to flourish is for good people to do nothing. This is what Spotlight strives to highlight; the blind eye turned by the judiciary, the police, the community and the institutions of the Church itself is staggering, indeed, one of the most important lines in Spotlight is this;
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one too. That’s the truth of it.”
That is what makes Spotlight compulsive and compelling viewing as it is not a film about child sex abuse only but the systemic failure of the Catholic Church to take action against or responsibility for the paedophile members of the clergy also. In a wonderfully constructed scene towards the end of the film, something that simmers just below the surface from the opening minutes is the realisation that so many knew but did nothing, a scene driven by Michael Keaton. He is ably assisted though by a supporting cast delivering understated and considered performances, Liev Scriber and Mark Ruffalo in particular (Ruffalo rewarded with an Oscar nomination for his efforts). What is remarkable about such a large cast is that, in a film with a subject matter as delicate as this, there are no scene-stealers or scenery chewers, the actors perform for each other as opposed to in spite of each other and from the tightly constructed suspense of the evolving investigation to the wonderfully written dialogue and the nuanced and unselfish performances, Spotlight is an absolute triumph.
Spotlight, for me, deserves the Best Picture Oscar because it is a rare type of film – it tells the audience not what it wants to hear, but what it needs to hear. Bold and brave, Spotlight stares down the unfolding controversy without flinching. It doesn’t need to go into graphic detail about the sexual abuse, the subject matter taps into the audience’s natural anger. It handles this topic very delicately, carefully drawing the audience into the investigation, into the fractured lives of the abuse survivors and highlighting their struggles to regain something close to normalcy. As lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says to Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) after an interview with an abuse survivor, “He’s one of the lucky ones. He’s still alive.” Why does it need the Oscar? The world needs to see this film and, maybe strangely enough, the Catholic Church needs the world to see it too. As Rezendes says to his editor, Robby (Michael Keaton) as the research starts to take shape, “It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this; not a priest, or a cardinal or a freaking pope!”
Spotlight is too important a film to go unrecognised and its importance was highlighted to me during the screening I attended. At the end of the film, as five pages four columns wide of locations where clerical sex abuse has been uncovered to date began to roll, two very distinct things happened. The middle-aged man sitting beside me started to cry, not wailing but a simple sniffle and a drying of the eyes. I can only assume that Spotlight was more to him than just a film, than an entertaining way of killing two hours. Also, in the darkness behind me I overheard a young woman say, as the list of places around the globe continued to grow, flowing into the hundreds, three simple words. Oh. My. God.
Spotlight is, indeed, something more.