Thomas McCarthy’s new movie Spotlight has been likened, in both form and quality, to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. The comparison may at first seem like a cliché, but after seeing both movies this past weekend—the latter for the fourth or fifth time—I realize the connection is both unavoidable and entirely germane.
When you get right down to it, Spotlight isn’t a companion to All the President’s Men so much as a remake. While the two films are by no means identical—they take place in different cities at different times and have completely different plots—their agendas are one and the same, and they succeed for exactly the same reasons.
The agenda, then, is to demonstrate how justice and democracy cannot exist anywhere without freedom of the press, and how investigative journalism itself is a long, difficult, boring process that—counterintuitively and against all common sense—makes for positively riveting cinema.
It’s easy enough to talk about the preeminence of the First Amendment and of speaking truth to power, but Spotlight goes a step further by showing us how near-impossible that task really is—even for the most well-equipped and widely-circulated newspaper in town.
McCarthy’s movie—in case you’ve been kept out of the loop—is about how the Boston Globe in 2001 uncovered evidence of rampant sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which the church’s leadership—up to and including Archbishop Bernard Law himself—spent decades covering up. All told, some 250 Boston-area priests were alleged to have sexually molested young boys and girls, with the “official” victim count at 552. God knows what the true figure really is.
Like Pakula’s film, which famously recounted the Washington Post’s investigations into Watergate, Spotlight features a small group of unknown reporters undertaking a methodical, comprehensive, long-shot project to reveal that a gargantuan and revered American institution is rotten to the core. In All the President’s Men, that institution was the federal government during the Nixon administration. In Spotlight, it’s the Catholic Church.
The bottom line—the implied moral to the story—is that were it not for the Spotlight team’s exhaustive and heroic efforts, the Globe’s revelations about predatory priests and a corrupt hierarchy could very easily have remained a secret forever, denying justice and any kind of closure to an entire generation of molested kids, not to mention all the generations that came before.
To this conclusion, one might naturally ask, “How?” How could that many children be raped—physically and emotionally—without a single one of them speaking up and being heard?
Spotlight’s answer: Many of them did speak up, but nobody wanted to listen.
Fourteen years after the fact, we now know beyond doubt that the Catholic Church in Boston engaged in a conspiracy of silence on the epidemic of sexual abuse, moving problem priests from one parish to another while saying nothing publicly about what those priests were up to. (It was as a direct consequence of the Boston revelations that similar scandals came to light in virtually every Christian country on Earth.)
What we didn’t know—at least not as fully as we should have—is that the archdiocese was not the only player in this terrible drama. Far from acting alone, Cardinal Law and his gang received a crucial assist from the people in the pews: those in the Catholic community who loved and respected the Church and would never, for a moment, have entertained the possibility that a member of this institution could do something wrong—let alone something criminal and obscene.
For millennia, clergymen of all faiths have served (often rightly) as the most trustworthy members of society—men of education, wisdom and unimpeachable moral fiber. It didn’t hurt that, in the case of Catholicism, these men also had God on their speed dial and could invoke divine punishment or reward to bend their parishioners to their will.
And so whenever there was a whisper about some priest doing this or that to the altar boys under his tutelage, most Catholics—including a few who worked at the Globe—dismissed the allegation before the thought could even settle into their minds.
Like a parent who hears that his son is dealing drugs or a Patriots fan who learns that Tom Brady was doing something fishy with those footballs—or, indeed, an idealistic citizen who views the government as a benevolent force for good—churchgoers could not bring themselves to see what was directly in front of their nose
They didn’t want it to be true, so they convinced themselves it was false.
That, in so many words, is what journalism is for: To tell you what you’d rather not hear. Reporters have resources and privileges that ordinary citizens do not, which makes it inevitable that the press will disappoint your rosy views of humanity every now and again.
As such, it also means that news outlets will forever be on the front lines in the battle for truth, justice and accountability. Reporters and editors have no professional obligation except to find out what the hell’s going on. That’s why movies about newspapermen tend to be so entertaining: Sometimes fact really is more compelling than fiction. In a moral universe, it’s the only thing that matters.
As with all major institutional scandals, the details mean everything. The triumph of Spotlight is that it allows the survivors of the Church rape epidemic to have their day in court—that is, to explain precisely what being held captive by a priest entailed—along with those who had everything to lose from the publication of this story, from the archbishop to the priests to the family members who chose to look the other way.
In so doing, the film shows how the process of newsgathering is inherently a dreary, depressing, often hostile endeavor in which powerful forces will try everything they can to prevent you from doing your job. A job, we might add, that depends overwhelmingly on cooperation from the public, which includes those same institutions. The term “Gordian Knot” leaps oddly to mind.
To break the Watergate caper, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward needed to draw connections between key White House figures—“follow the money,” they were sagely told—and they did so by extracting information from witnesses who had every reason to keep their insights to themselves. Some of this involved misdirection and sleight of hand—asking a witness to “confirm” information you don’t actually know is always a neat trick—some involved dumb luck, and some required nothing except patience, asking the right questions and a near-pathological refusal to take “no” for an answer.
With Spotlight, it’s déjà vu all over again. The Globe team, working separately and together, accumulates its information through a combustible mixture of instinct, legal wrangling, library basement research and good old-fashioned interviewing. A late-inning confrontation between Michael Keaton and a representative for child victims is a virtual carbon copy of Dustin Hoffman’s run-in with a Florida lawyer with a cabinet full of crucial documents. In both instances, the reporter explains that his paper is running the story with or without this person’s cooperation, so he might as well stand on the right side of justice.
Long story short (too late?): Revelatory, in-depth reporting does not happen by accident. It’s the result of thousands of man hours of detective work—and all the court orders, dead ends, slammed doors and wrecked lives that go with it—and when is it done carefully and seen through to the end, it can change the world.
The Globe would eventually print more than 600 articles in connection with the Church abuse tragedy, for which the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. It’s worth noting that the award—the most prestigious in all of American journalism—was not in the category of “Investigative Reporting,” “Explanatory Reporting” or “Local Reporting,” although any of those would surely have fit the bill.
Rather, the Pulitzer Prize Board saved the Globe’s output for its most distinguished category of all: “Public Service.”