On September 11, 2001, the national focus was directed to an attack against our sense of security that came from an unfamiliar and terrifying source. Our cinema turned to this terror and exploited it for all that was worth for a period of about ten or eleven years. A few months after the terrorist attacks, our national focus was temporarily drawn away from places overseas to a far more pervasive and endemic attack against our collective security, situated right here at home: the systemic allowance of child abuse to go unreported in the Catholic Church. It has taken thirteen years for that story to reach our cinemas, and not even the story of the abuse itself, but that of the six reporters who helped bring that story to light.
The film that accomplishes that task is called Spotlight, a title that alludes to the approach taken by the reporters in uncovering their story, but which is also an apt signifier of how our contemporary cinema has (partly) moved away from the bankable fear of an outside aggressor and turned more to the failings and intimate traumas of a community facing its failings for the first time.
What should our approach be in addressing this film? Naturally, one thinks to make comparisons to All the President’s Men , the other prestige picture about journalistic integrity in the face of a national scandal. There are a few links between the two films as far as aesthetics are concerned; there’s not much one can do to glamorize an off-white office of white-haired white men in off-white clothing. Yet they belong to different eras: one must only remember the fact that Men hit theaters within four years of its scandal being reported to understand just how long it takes a national headline to make headway as a commercial film nowadays (so long as that headline did not concern the assassination of Osama bin Laden). More essentially, the earlier film is a low-key entertainment that amounts to a thrilling buddy movie (albeit one that wears a serious face), whereas this new creation is an utterly undemonstrative, dutiful representation of half a dozen people at work.
Ensemble pieces are always hard to evaluate, in that there is no clear individual voice calling the shots or commanding the frame. Yet even beyond the difficulty in reconciling how one distributes one’s attention amongst six or seven excellent actors, a film like Spotlight does not lend itself well to the established critical or theoretical rhetoric. That “undemonstrative” air tones down any sort of formal or narrative technique that might emphasize one facet of the story (one reporter, one account, one perspective) over another. This is a good thing. Unlike most A-list dramas, Spotlight encourages a collectivist approach to film analysis; it makes us view a film as the product of a community. Watching the film, it is not useful to think about the initiative of a single person in bringing the project to fruition. Rather, the film simply happens to be, much in the way that the story its subjects uncovered simply came to light. It reminds us of the postmodern idea that individuals are mere agents in the unfolding of a situation; as is said in the film, we stumble around blindly through the dark, attempting to do our jobs, until someone switches on a light, and we find ourselves ready to place the blame (or crown a champion).
Our culture is largely founded upon the image of a triumphant individual, and similarly our conversations about films dance around catechisms like “the auteur” and “the star” (our highest estimation of these people is located in a statuette that each year goes to the decided “best” of the pack). Any instances which force us to rethink our language for cinema, and our thoughts about the world in which we live, are valuable and precious. It is refreshing to think about Spotlight, and all other films, as their own beings – the product of a collective unconscious that needn’t be broken down in order to locate some elusive “essence.” The essence of the work that we do is its place amongst all the other work that we do.
Walking into the night after viewing this film, I found myself once again encountering the unprecedented warm weather that has characterized these last few days, something that does not sit comfortably in my gut – especially as the world around me decks itself up in Christmastime decor. I was struck by how easy it is for individuals to let days of quiet reckoning slide by, without care – without seeking to confront the systematic habits of destruction that we have, in our carelessness, permitted to become institutional and daunting obstacles to our communal well-being. But if a film like Spotlight can teach us anything, it is that silences are held to be broken. It’s only a matter of time, and care, before our errors are brought to light.