Spotlight begins with a short phrase on a black-and-white screen: “Based on actual events.” It ends with another black-and-white screen and an unrelenting list of cities: San Diego, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Santiago, Chile; Sydney, Australia—it keeps going. In every one of these few hundred places, Roman Catholic priests molested children.
There’s an entire movie between these black-and-white screens—and a mighty fine one at that—but these simple bookends stick with you. After all, the cities represent every victim and their unimaginable grief, every perpetrator and their unimaginable corruption, hubris, lust, turpitude, whatever. Sometimes words fail.
There could be reels of film made about each place and its stories. This one in particular is about an intrepid group of Boston Globe reporters (the “Spotlight” team) who over the course of several months uncover the systemic sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children at the—I tremble to finish the phrase—hands of 249 Boston-area priests. The abuse is heinous; the concomitant cover-up is, too—from lawyers just doing their job to cardinals just trying to protect their flock to family members saying what would people think and it can’t really be true. Tom McCarthy’s film is straightforward and even-handed, balancing carefully the weightiness of its content with the enjoyableness that’s inherent to any whodunit journalism movie, from All the President’s Men to the equally dark Zodiac.
The worst of what I’m dubbing “journalism movies” tend to unreflectively extol the Fourth Estate for its persistence in fact-finding, its never-give-up attitude, and its uncompromising pursuit of The Truth, even as it stands defiant before evil institutional giants. Spotlight surely looks like that kind of movie. But without giving too much away, it’s actually quite different, subtly subverting this institution-exalting trope and trading it in for something less black-and-white, where the heroes don’t wear a cape that’s one-size-fits-all.
For instance, the members of the “Spotlight” team are all lapsed Catholics with varying degrees of the so-called “Catholic guilt.” They’re spiritually inert and increasingly uneasy about how these allegations color their own religious upbringings. One laments: “I always thought I would go back [to church]. . . . But now I’m cracked.” Or later: “We all knew something was going on . . . and we did nothing.” There’s heroism and laudatory hard work here, to be sure, but it’s mixed with despondency, feelings of complicity, and a fear that what may be behind the curtain is a mirror.
Then there are the victims. Every one McCarthy introduces us to is beleaguered, hangdog, seemingly half-dead. One’s arm is dappled with destructive scars; another jumps when doors close and dishes clink. “He’s one of the lucky ones,” the victims’ lawyer says. “He’s still alive.”
The movie is agnostic as to the question of whether the lawyer is being hyperbolic. But even now, I remember the question one victim asks when recollecting his childhood: “When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say ‘no’ to God?” Forget forsaking fear of man and fostering a right fear of God. These poor kids lived every single day in trembling fear of God’s men. They felt crushed and exploited by him before they even had the chance to know him.
Spotlight isn’t a celebration of capital-J Journalism or human triumph or the tower-toppling capability of old-fashioned hard work. It’s a sober recapitulation of lots of terrible things, terrible things whose only silver linings were that they spurred revelations of more terrible things, all around the world, consequently bringing into light that which festered for so long in a shroud of darkness. But even still, the finale was far from final—and, if you see the movie, you’ll realize the phones never stop ringing.
In a word, Spotlight is an appropriately hopeless movie—which is precisely why it’s worth seeing.
Wait, what? That seems stridently non-Christian, you’re thinking. How can hopelessness be a virtue? Interestingly, a recent piece by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates sought to answer that question. Coates argues the aim of the artist should be enlightenment, rather than a vague and vacuous “feel-goodism”:
But hope for hope’s sake, hope as tautology, hope because hope, hope because “I said so,” is the enemy of intelligence. One can say the same about the opposing pole of despair. Neither of these—hope or despair—are “wrong.” They each reflect human sentiment, much like anger, sadness, love, and joy. Art that uses any of these to say something larger interests me. Art that takes any of these as its aim does not.
Coates perhaps wouldn’t realize it, but this claim fits well with Christianity. Hope for hope’s sake is pointless, dishonest, potentially damning. It’s a snake with its tail in its mouth. Similarly, any piece of art that waves the flag of unqualified hope for this-or-that institution or political party or mindset or character trait is also pointless, dishonest, and potentially damning. Far better to survey the land and rightly find it hopeless than to elicit hope in the wrong directions, advertising “Peace! Truth!” when there is only derision and best wishes.
Of course, the story remains half-told. Coates admits this himself when he writes:
If one observes the world and genuinely feels hopeful, and truly feels that the future is not chaos, but is in fact already written, then one has a responsibility to say so. Or, less grandly, if one can feel hopeful about a literal tomorrow and one’s individual prospects one should certainly say so.
After all this time, only now do McCarthy’s Spotlight and its Christian viewers reach an impasse. Following Coates’s perceptive rubric, the film was right to stay mum about where one finds hope in the face of unspeakable evil. We Christians, however, do not have that luxury, if that’s even the right word. We must, as Coates adjures, “say so.” And so we do, acknowledging that hope for hope’s sake, hope as tautology, hope because hope, hope because “we say so,” is not simply the enemy of intelligence, but of both certain peace in this life and secure salvation in the one to come.