Readers will remember that I’m no fan of the American film industry since the original Star Wars. It’s too dominated by the creation of brand and sequels to avoid the $100m needed to market a new film; by a cartel of actors who demand a percentage of the box office for their commercially successful name; by special effects and violence; by the absence of the supporting character actor that characterised vintage Hollywood.
Yet I have to admit that every so often a film comes along normally about some legal injustice – like Erin Brockevich -that is undeniably worth making and watching. Such a film is Spotlight, the name of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed the full extent of the cover up of the abuse by Catholic priests of children in Boston. It is not a film so much about that abuse, there were few shots of children but more of the investigation into 34 years of covering up, and the extent to which not only the Catholic church under Cardinal Law but the police and lawyers – even the Globe itself – were complicit in ensuring the real truth did not emerge. Priests like John Geaghan were reassigned to other diocese, commited abuse and re-assigned again.
When I saw the dreaded words “based on actual events” my heart dropped. Would this be another pseudo-documentary that bore an uneasy relationship with the truth ? Not at all. If anything the truth was underplayed. There was for example no self-glory in mentioning that the newspaper won a Pullitzer award for journalism. It did have a powerful, starry cast of Michael Beaton, Rachel McAdam and Mark Ruffalo, but there was little glamour in their dress or conduct. Take-away pizzas were eaten at untidy desks not meals eaten at swanky restaurants. The cast shadowed the actual reporters to get a proper feel for their roles.
Once the story was published more and more victims came forward and the church had to pay eventually some $85 m in compensation but the moral damage was even more considerable. It’s hard to think of a worse form of abuse by authority than by a priest. One victim spoke of his repressed homosexuality and to come out through misplaced faith made him an alcoholic. Investigative journalism of this sort is all but dead. Even the more cerebral broadsheets are more interested in the latest celebrity. A film like Spotlight above all underlines how valuable a service investigative journalism can be.