“Movies that are not documentaries are works of fiction, whether or not they deal with real events.”
— A. O. Scott, Co-chief Movie Critic, New York Times, January 8, 2016
And the Oscar for best Picture goes to … Spotlight (2015), a widely honored and hugely popular movie summarized by A.O. Scott of the New York Times thus: “A team of Boston Globe investigative reporters—played by Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo—takes on the local archdiocese in this powerful fact-based newspaper procedural, directed by Tom McCarthy. The movie, with a superb cast and a tightly constructed script, is an unflinching investigation of systemic moral rot and a rousing defense of the values of professional journalism.”
Quite. But is it true? (Scott is careful to use the neutral “fact-based,” a caution not employed by IMDB.com, which breezily describes the movie as “the true story of….”)
Awards hoopla had barely quieted when the story of Jack Dunn reappeared. Dunn is an alum of BC High and spokesperson for Boston College, a favorite of the Irish American community which boasts being “grounded in the ideals that inspired our Jesuit founders.” He’s played by Gary Galone, a familiar face from supporting roles and television dramas.
Dunn complained that Spotlight portrayed him as someone who knew about clergy sex abuse but was indifferent to victims’ suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth, he insisted. “Hollywood needed a villain, and in this particular scene they assigned that to me,” Dunn told WBZ-TV in a November interview, claiming elsewhere that he “led the charge to get [the victims] compensation, to get them counseling and to pass on any information they shared with us to police.” The filmmakers repeatedly denied his charge.
In March, however, Dunn got his vindication. “As is the case with most movies based on historical events, ‘Spotlight’ contains fictionalized dialogue that was attributed to Mr. Dunn for dramatic effect,” the Open Road production company said in a statement reported by the Boston networks and other regional media. “We acknowledge that Mr. Dunn was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up. It is clear from his efforts on behalf of the victims at BC High that he and the filmmakers share a deep, mutual concern for victims of abuse,” the statement continued. Open Road Films was also reportedly planning to make unspecified charitable contributions by way of reparation.
Does any of this matter?
As the fabled director famously told his incandescent star, “It’s only a movie, Ingrid.” Not to Jack Dunn, it isn’t, and maybe not to us either. “The reality is [the acknowledgment] will never erase the pain of being falsely depicted in a movie that has won an Academy Award, that has been shown all around the world,” he said.
What about us? Does Spotlight’s Pinocchio rating matter to us?
“There’s always a responsibility in making a film about real events,” says Sarah Gavron, director of last year’s Suffragette, a multiple award winner ignored by the Oscars. “We did a huge amount of research, and we had lots of historical consultants on board.” What the audience doesn’t know is that the heroine of her movie, played by Carey Mulligan, is a fictional character. (Her status is revealed only in bonus materials included with the DVD release.) We are not alerted upfront to the “truthiness” of Gavron’s story.
For decades, the church and the news media alike denied the existence of this scandal and, when that strategy lost its feasibility, denied its scope.
“Truthiness” is a 21st-century coinage of the Catholic faux-news personality Stephen Colbert. The word is generally understood to mean “a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts” (per Wikipedia, itself characterized by Colbert as suffering from the condition). “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth—the truth we want to exist,” Colbert has explained. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore.”
Most commentators have noted—as how could we not?—that heroic print journalism is at the heart of Spotlight. As such, it follows in the honored tradition of countless old black-and-white movies, of All the President’s Men (1976-politics; invariably quoted) and The Insider (1999-Big Tobacco; already almost forgotten despite Al Pacino and an extraordinary Russell Crowe). No journalist or magazine writer is likely to object to this characterization of our profession. But are the messengers really the story people flock to Spotlight to see?
Previous efforts to film the Boston clergy sex abuse scandal have largely met with critical and public indifference. Could it be that optimism engendered by the current pope’s apparent liberalism has opened a space for popular exploration of this extremely painful, not to say criminal, story? For truth and reconciliation?
(In February, Spotlight was screened at the Vatican in advance of the three-day meeting of the controversial commission established by Pope Francis in 2013 to investigate the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Vatican Radio had already praised the movie for being “honest” and “compelling.”)
As any survivor who has attempted to speak truth to power knows, denial and discredit are the weapons of choice used to neutralize speech. For decades, the church and the news media alike denied the existence of this scandal and, when that strategy lost its feasibility, denied its scope. Spotlight brings high production values and dramatic pacing to this process as it played out in the city of Boston and its local media flagship, the Boston Globe newspaper.
Culturally sponsored conspiracy and appeasement are themes in this movie, and viewers sensitized to the machinations of elites recognize them. We applaud the comeuppance of (eventual) exposure, even if the catalyst is an ultimate outsider (a Jew, formerly of the New York Times) and not one of our (collaborationist?) (Irish-American Catholic) own.
The deeper truths of this story are briefly glimpsed: As one of our shoe-leather heroes, Rachel McAdams, doorsteps an accused. This older man, a former priest living in what might be described as “reduced circumstances,” denies her charges. He was sexually abused as a child; he knows abuse. What he did to the minors in his care was not abuse, he insists.
This disturbing exchange foregrounds key issues: What is truth? What is denial? Where does responsibility lie? The outspoken Cardinal Raymond Burke believes that—yes—women are to blame. “There was a period of time when men who were ‘feminized’ and confused about their own sexual identity had entered the priesthood; sadly some of these disordered men sexually abused minors; a terrible tragedy for which the Church mourns,” as the Washington Post reported in January 2015. (Burke’s star is currently in eclipse.) Meanwhile, Boston’s equally conservative and outspoken Cardinal Bernard Law, who presided over the city during these years, was forced to resign on account of his role in protecting so-called pedophile priests. He is now referred to by the honorific of Archbishop Emeritus of Boston.
How are survivors and abusers, and the abusers’ institutional sponsor, to be reconciled?
This agenda is surely more than Spotlight’s secular hagiology can accommodate. Having traduced one of its (albeit minor) characters, are the filmmakers even fit to ask? Yet, beyond the undoubted pleasures of a well-made movie and its talented cast and crew, aren’t these the questions we really want to pursue? In truth.