When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to be an alter server during mass. I liked the robes, but mostly I liked the idea of holding the pattons (they aren’t in use any more, but they were small pans held under the priest during Communion so, as my Sunday School teacher explained, “nobody dropped Jesus on the floor.”
During my time alter serving, I got to know one of the new priests at our church in Lexington, Father John. He was young and energetic and his homilies were the best because he would buy a bag of stuff from Wal-Mart and use his stuff as props to get his point across, then give it away like Mass was Let’s Make a Deal.
After my dad died, I grew closer to Father John. On the Alter Server’s trip to the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park, my friend Diana and I hung out with him all day and had a blast. After about a year, Father John was transferred to a parish in Eastern Kentucky, a more impoverished part of the state. My mom explained that oftentimes the promising and energetic young priests get the tough assignments, but could tell I was nonetheless sad he was gone.
There is a moment in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight which Wesley Morris and Bill Simmons decried as Oscar-baity (it is the clip above) where one of the journalists investigating the Boston priest child abuse scandal, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) grows impatient with his boss (Michael Keaton) holding the story. The Spotlight team of reporters, all four of which were varying degrees of lapsed Catholics, were clearly conflicted about how and when to get the information out versus how much to research and dig while other children might be preyed upon. Rezendes launches into a tirade pointing out that it could have been any one of them.
What Morris and Simmons found hackneyed, struck me right to the core. I thought of Father John. Then I thought of Father Nienaber, a man who stopped giving Mass shortly after I was born, but was arrested on child abuse charges in 1993 for crimes that took place a decade earlier. Had I been a little younger, I fit the demographic of the kids the corrupt priest preyed on, but I was lucky enough that they primarily kept him in the Rectory away from people. Instead, I got Father John.
When the movie was over, I walked around the block trying to wrap my head about how I felt about being Catholic, about what happened, and how every member of the Catholic community can’t help but feel the accountability you can see weighing Keaton’s shoulders down, weighing down those of his lawyer friend (Jamey Sheridan), and weighing down on every staffer at the Boston Globe.
Then I went home and checked the database of corrupt priests to see if Father John was on the list. He was not and, while I should’ve felt relieved, instead I felt all the more concerned. I’ve spent over 24 hours contemplating what my Catholicism means to me all because of a movie. The actions of these priests and church authorities took something that was pure and wonderful and, for a moment, made me question its motives. Does that mean I can’t have faith in the church anymore? I don’t know. I’d like to hope not.
It is hard for me to accurately assess the cinematic quality of Spotlight, for as a semi-lapsed Catholic, the film stirs up so many feelings and emotions, and I can practically hear the pain and angst the Spotlight team goes through doing their job, but not being able to fix a horribly broken mess that stretched far beyond the city limits of Boston. I don’t know if people who were not part of the church leave with the same experience.
Let me try to at least point out why this movie is exceptional beyond just the questions of morality and religion. Unlike Mad Max or The Revenant, the beauty of the direction of Spotlight is Tom McCarthy’s restraint. There are no forced dramatic and suspenseful moments just for effect. The minimalist cinematography keeps the focus on a slew of truly incredible performances. Unlike The Revenant or The Martian, which I found to have major performer liabilities, there is not a soul in this movie I don’t believe gives a thoroughly convincing and compelling performance. The production design is exceptional too. Rather than glam up the gorgeous Rachel McAdams, they keep her in sensible shoes and wide-legged pants with curled hair that even has the occasional spot in the back all of us frizzy-haired girls tend to miss from time to time. They make the movie stars look and feel real. It also has hands-down the best dialogue of any other Oscar-level movie this year, yet makes so much out of a look, a pause, some silence, and shots of reporters doing what they are supposed to do–listen.
In many ways, it is a throwback to the 70s the way Argo was, with a process film that knows the substance is far more important than the style in which it is presented. Subtlety is Spotlight’s best weapon and it is a relief among all the boom and spectacle of some of the other nominees.
I still maintain Bridge of Spies is the best movie of the year because I know it is a story everyone can relate to and I am not sure if Spotlight is something that resonates the same way for those who were not raised in the Catholic community. In other words, I fully admit my personal experiences are clouding my ability to judge it as a film. For the outsiders like Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron, it was easy to say go after the church, get ’em, take ’em down. I know there are others who still believe the world would be better without the Catholic Church. When I think of how, if I was a little younger, I wouldn’t have happy stories of Father John, but horror stories of Father Nieneber, I shudder, because I know people affected by this scandal and it sickens me. I don’t condone it, I hate that it happened, but, naive as it may sound, I have to believe that with movies like Spotlight and people like the team at the Boston Globe and the numerous wonderful selfless members of the clergy, there is still hope for the Church.
Because yes, I could have very easily been a victim, but the other side of the coin is I may not have even been a person were it not for the church. I was put up for adoption by a Catholic birth mother who didn’t believe abortion was the answer. I was adopted by two loving Catholic parents through Catholic Services, whose marriage was strengthened by the Catholic program Marriage Encounter. I literally owe my life to the Catholic Church and, right now, as I go through a very tough time in my life when friends don’t always answer the phone and family can’t always be there, the people who reach out, the people who have guaranteed their support are representatives of the Catholic Church.
There is a moment in Spotlight where Ruffalo’s character expresses a thought many of us lapsed Catholics have had, which is that someday we would come back. Someday it would be a huge part of our lives again. I, like him, enjoy Mass when the priest gives a compelling and thought-provoking homily. I like to go and think about something bigger than myself. I like knowing I am part of a community who has incredibly selfless and wonderful priests and nuns that far outweigh the bad apples in volume. And, just like Rezendes, I know it is silly and painful to consider what it is going to take to get the church back to what it should be, to what I’ve seen it be for so many people, but I can’t help but hope we get better. Not just the cardinals and the corrupt priests, but the journalists, the city leaders, the parishoners, all of us. I left Spotlight feeling a sense of accountability but also a sense of hope that this movie and the journalism that inspired it will continue to move us forward.
This isn’t much of a movie review because, for me, Spotlight isn’t a movie. My friend, who teaches at a Catholic girls’ school in California told me the journalism students at the school were excused from Mass one day to see Spotlight because, “that is a Mass too.”
To the educator who said that, I applaud you because the comparison is so apt. Unlike Mad Max and Revenant where I just left shrugging and saying, “wow that looked really cool,” I left this movie scratching my head, questioning my faith, trying to work through my own personal thoughts about the church, and mulling over how much hope I have that people like the Spotlight team can keep saving us from ourselves. To me, this is a purer cinematic experience than the one with the pretty shots of the South Dakota snow because I would rather leave a theater not thinking, “I wonder how they pulled that off?” and instead thinking, “what about my life might need to change because of what I’ve just witnessed?”
I hope Spotlight can maintain its momentum and take Best Picture, as I think if we look back in 20 years and it is The Revenant, we will roll our eyes like we do with The Hurt Locker or Crash. Meanwhile, Spotlight will be remembered as the next great newsroom drama and will continue to raise questions and demand answers for years to come.
My Rolling Top 5 of 2015
- Bridge of Spies
- Inside Out
- Going Clear
- Straight Outta Compton