Thursday, 13 October 2016

Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" – Father Jack

I was astonished to discover that watching Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight was part of Pope Francis' yearly Christmas Day ritual with his family.  Every year after Christmas Dinner, he settles down with his extended family to watch McCarthy's searing revelations about the child abusing priests of Boston.  

Then I remembered that I'd made up that story.  It's not true at all.

You don’t need a masters in Film Studies or Theory of Literature to realize that when a film claims to be based on a true story, it’s going to be anything but.  It doesn’t matter how earnest the intentions or how slavishly the actors research their roles, it’s going to be as much of a subjective work of fiction as Luc Besson’s Transporter or Keenen Ivory Wayans's White Chicks.  And films don’t get much more earnest than Tom McCarthy’s account of the exposure of paedo Catholic priests by the Boston Globe newspaper.  The actors apparently hung out with the real life journos so they could copy their exact mannerisms and voices.  Is the result a faithful and objective account of what happened in the lead up to the explosive revelations by the Globe’s crack investigative department, Spotlight?  No it is not.


Let’s take a look at a few arguments that various characters put across to us in this film.
1.    Around fifty percent of catholic priests are not celibate
2.    This causes a culture of secrecy from which six percent emerge as nonces
3.    The victims include both girls and boys.  The abuse has nothing to do with homosexuality and is predatory behaviour.  Boy victims are often chosen because their shame will cause them to keep quiet about the abuse.

We’re given no idea of where these fifty percent and six percent statistics come from.  The six percent figure sounds suspiciously accurate – not five percent or ten percent – six percent, as though accurate to a confidence level of one in a hundred.  This number comes magically true in the film, although the notes over the end credits seem to suggest that the final number of bad priests found was much higher.

We’re also given no idea how much of the research had been independently and earlier done by other investigators.

Review continues below...

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It’s not PC to suggest any link between homosexuality and paedophilia so any suspicion of a link here is explicitly broken – this is just catholic bashing.  And of course, there is no link, so why mention it?  This kind of bullshit does political correctness no favours.  It’s irrelevant to this story.  The predominant mode of sexuality among catholic priests does seems to be homosexual – look at this recent story where the few remaining students at an Irish training college spend half their time flicking through Grindr.  How many of the fifty percent of non-celibate priests mentioned in Spotlight were in same-sex relationships?  The film is silent.  Does their sexuality have any relevance to the abuse story?  No, of course not.

And what about that six percent figure?  If we make an assumption that child abuse is high among priests because of their easy and anonymous access to children, where does it leave the rest of the population now the internet provides easy and anonymous access to children?  Do we really think the situation is any better in the general population?
‘current research and expert opinion suggest that men within the Catholic Church may be no more likely than others to abuse’ says this article.

All of the above is not intended to belittle the seriousness of the abuse perpetrated by the priests, the importance of the journalism in exposing it, or the scandal of the systematic cover-up by church hierarchy.  Only that what is presented as clear-cut and objective fact by the film is not necessarily the case.

Can you believe the events in this 'true life' story?  No.

Can you believe the drivers offered by the film as an explanation for its events?  No.

My view is that these kinds of stories are better served by documentaries.  Let the real-life journalists tell us their stories and we can make up our own minds.  Instead we get Michael Keaton and the others shadow-marking their men, aping their body language and their speech.  Watch Keaton as he leans his body forward in eager anticipation as he approaches a hotel lobby desk.  And of course all the journalists are shown as hard-working, earnest, selfless types.  Funny that, because in real life, they always seem like a cynical bunch of snark-merchants, like this time when Paxman asked Tony Blair if he used to pray with George W Bush.

How do you score a film like Spotlight?  I suppose if you like this kind of stuff, you might give it a 6.  But in my case, it’s

Personal Score: 4/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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