I only recently saw Spotlight, despite it having been out for a few months now, after it was named best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. I must admit I had ignored it because its genre – let’s call it the “institutional procedural” – is not my favorite, and there were other films that, in the end of the year goodie glut, were more pressing. And I will admit I’m glad I saw it; it is assuredly not the best film of the year, but it is a very solid, engrossing film that revitalizes a genre that has languished recently. What is an institutional procedural, you may (or may not) ask? Like a police procedural, which follows the particulars of a crime investigation, being more attentive to the process of discovery and prosecution than the drama of the crime itself (which often is accomplished either before the movie begins or happens in the opening minutes), an institutional procedural is concerned with the inner workings of an organization, usually set to a particular task, revealing (hopefully) some concealed truth about how the organization functions, successfully or not, and perhaps how in touch it is with the reality that it serves. In the past several years, the focus of this genre has been the national security apparatus, an exemplar being Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. That film, while nominally following Jessica Chastain’s character, is less concerned with her story than with the story of how the various intelligence agencies worked to capture Osama bin Laden. Past similar films, though, have focused on the lobbying industry (Thank You for Smoking) or the newspaper industry (All the President’s Men, perhaps setting the standard for the genre). Given such examples, we could claim that the institutional procedural is really about watching how power works, examining it forensically – that is, from multiple points of view. Spotlight, then, at the second level, is not so much about how a newspaper functions, but about how power was wielded by the Catholic Church, and the fact that this power often seemed invisible simply because it was an everyday fact of life in Boston. This is not to say that the populace was willfully blind to the power the Church wielded; they gave the Church the power it had. Rather, they were blind to it because it was a given feature of the cultural landscape, and of their corporate identity as Bostonians. The paradigm they inhabited prevented them from seeing it, because it was a natural feature of the terrain. This fact does not absolve them of responsibility in any way, of course, and one of the prime accomplishments of the film is that it portrays the gnawing realization, across multiple characters, of how they have been complicit in horrible injustice simply by claiming a common identity.
This is all putting the cart before the horse a bit, however. The film, for those unaware, concerns the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting that uncovered the widespread child abuse perpetrated by clergy of the Catholic Church over the course of many years. This initial case is, indeed, what broke the worldwide abuse scandal wide open. The film, and the investigation, begins with the arrival of an outsider – recently hired managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an outsider both in origins (he hails from New York, by way of Miami) and culture (he is a Jewish bachelor in a land of Catholic family men). Baron picks up on a columnist’s recent piece about allegations by a “crank” lawyer (an excellent Stanley Tucci) of abuse against local clergy, and asks why an investigative piece hasn’t been written on the subject. The Globe has such an investigative arm, the “Spotlight” team, headed by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton). Everyone tries to convince Baron he’s wasting his time, but the editor persists, even going so far as to sue the Church to unseal court documents they have fought to keep closed. The Spotlight team starts its work, and the rest of the movie is the step by step account of their work of disclosure, and of the snowballing implications. Baron continues to urge them on, correctly guiding them away from points of easy closure, pressuring them to go further, and dig deeper – the real story, he asserts, is the institutional cover-up, the abuse of power that reaches ever higher, and not the revelations centering on how many “bad apples” are within the Church. I could go into more detail, but in the case of this film, the plot is the meaning of the work, so instead I’d just say see it if you are interested. The film works well, first of all, because the script is incredibly intelligent, deliberate, and well researched. Indeed, it is so “objective” and procedural that we get almost no insight into the lives of the reporters, as we might have in a more typical film, and little to no scenes of outrage or emotionalism. While this is commendable, and lends the film its realism, it works almost too well, as the end denies us the catharsis of a city being shaken to its core; instead, the climax feels like a letdown, an anti-climax. While this is probably quite true to the experience of those reporting the case, who could not help but feel deflated, or wrung out, with no possible response living up to the months of sweat that went into their work, for us viewers, a little more comeuppance would have been nice, and not gratuitous. (It almost feels rushed in the end). Another factor that gives the film its power is the excellent, understated work of all the actors. While Mark Ruffalo, usually a favorite, is a little too gamy in his portrayal of a Boston “character,” the rest of the cast excels, particularly Schreiber, who balances resolve with a gentle, knowing humanity, the humility of an outsider who wants results, but does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings to get them. He really should get a supporting actor Oscar for his work here, it is so modulated and human. Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, in fact pretty much the entire cast, come off as everyday, conflicted citizens. As a portrait of the collective coming to consciousness of guilt and blindness, the film is fascinating. It is not especially technically exciting, but has no particular reason to be. Few movies have done so well to help us understand how the public is served in the workings of a particular institution. At the same time, this is still a fiction, despite the reality of its topic. As the institutional documentaries of Frederick Wiseman (which are, of course, fictions in their own way) show us, institutions, being little but intricate webs of human interaction, produce aberrant, or unexpected, results as a rule. The real story of Spotlight, like most procedurals, takes place before the movie begins – it is the years of willed ignorance and complacency that allowed the abuses of power to remain unchecked for generations.