|Thomas McCarthy in "The Wire"|
Keeping the line between fiction and non fiction clean is hard to do in the 21st century of electronic reality.
When Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he claimed he had developed a new genre, the non fiction novel, using the "techniques" of the novelist in reporting a real story. Of course, he did nothing of the sort; he simply interjected himself into the story of the murder of the Clutter family in their Kansas farmhouse. He did not, as far as I know, actually change or fictionalize what happened, nor even construct imaginary scenes. He simply spent enough time with the murderers to get their side of the story in a way which allowed for more details to emerge than one ordinarily gets from murderers.
Emerging from this came two astonishing films: "Capote" and "Infamous," both realized oddly at almost the same time, decades after Capote wrote his book. Both are well worth seeing.
In "The Wire," David Simon and Ed Burns fictionalized true stories and circumstances as they knew those stories through long years of seeing these events unfold, for Simon as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and for Burns as a street cop and detective. Watching "The Wire," you knew the characters were fictional, but you also knew they were real, amalgams of real people Simon and Burns had known, their language, the rhythms of speech, the humor, the settings all conveyed a truth which non fiction can never approach, when you are trying to get details right rather than the stuff which you know has to be happening underneath, which is what fiction can reach. Movies which depict real events and real people cannot go to motivation the way non fiction can. Capote, in the end, could never really understand the murderers he got to know, because he never knew them the way Simon and Burns did.
Arguably the most detestable character in all five seasons of "The Wire" was not a drug dealer or a street thug or even one of the derelict mothers, but a white reporter for The Sun, who was detestable because he chose to be morally bankrupt, where most of the other stained souls drifting through "The Wire" were reacting to the very poor hand they had been dealt. The character of the reporter was played so well by Thomas McCarthy, just looking at him, at his naked ambition and his cowardice and his emptiness, you came to loathe him.
Oddly enough, it is Thomas McCarthy who wrote and directed "Spotlight." Maybe not so oddly. Maybe he learned something from David Simon and all the folks, the refugees from The Sun who populated the cast of the 5th season.
"Spotlight" is extraordinary in its verisimilitude. You quickly stop thinking of the actors on screen as anything but the actual reporters. It's so much more gripping than "All the President's Men" with Redford and Hoffman. In that Watergate film, the editor presiding over the mission is Ben Bradlee. In "Spotlight" it's the editor's son, Ben Bradlee, Jr., but the real conflict belongs to the editor who runs the Spotlight project, who has missed the signs of the infection 20 years earlier and now has to face his own culpability.
The most extraordinary moment in this extraordinary film comes at the front door of a priest's home, when Sacha Pfeiffer interviews a priest who admits he abused young boys, but he explains earnestly, trying to make her understand, it wasn't so bad because he found no pleasure in it and it wasn't rape and he should know the difference, because he had been raped himself, presumably by a priest, when he was young, so he is not so terrible and in fact, should be pitied, not condemned.
I've heard Sacha Pfeiffer interviewed about that moment and she said that was the epiphany for her, when she understood just how sick these priests, and there were 249 of them in Boston, really were.
Of course, "Spotlight" is not "The Wire." In "Spotlight" you never actually see the priests--apart from that one at the front door, and apart from Cardinal Law, who protected them. You never understand what made them so depraved. In "The Wire" you see life from the point of view of the street thugs, the murderers, the drug lords and the hoppers and their actions make perfect sense. "Spotlight" does not attempt to explain what made the priests the way they are, other than by clinical testimony about the prevalence of their disease, the "what" of the disorder, not the "why."
The art of the Spotlight movie makers allowed making something engrossing out of the sheer drudgery of compiling evidence, getting lists of victims, documenting and confirming their stories, identifying the hundreds of priests who fondled, engaged in fellatio, preyed on young boys from poor, damaged homes.
They also managed to get across the points that: 1. The rule for celibacy was the necessary if not sufficient condition for this phenomenon. By mandating priests be celibate, the church in Rome virtually created a magnet for men who had significant pathologies connected to their own sexuality. And, of course, the attitude of the church toward sexuality-- that it is God's intent that sex be for procreation, not for pleasure--has cemented the mold which churns out perversity. 2. Throughout the United States and worldwide, priests either simply find willing adult women (about 50% do this) or prey on children, mainly boys (about 6% do this.) They choose boys, not always because they are homosexuals, but because boys are less likely to talk.
It is a wrenching, exhilarating film, full of anger and pathos. But it is more than Best Picture. It is an important social document, an important truth, about the Church, the relationship of the church to the legal system, the role of a free press and the virtues of a motivated group of reporters. It is a document about how dogma and practice can debase an institution which purports to embody the Holy Spirit. If ever there were an argument that it is hubris for any human being or any work of human beings to be the vessel for the Word of God, this is it. People are simply too human, too weak to be the container for the Word of God.
One of the most affecting scenes occurs when one of the reporters in the Spotlight organization (and they were all raised Catholic, if not currently practicing) says he had stopped going to church, but when he was a child, he actually liked going to church and somewhere in the back of his mind, he always thought he just might return to the church. But now, seeing what the church has become, this lapsed Catholic really has lost his faith, and it makes him sad.
Of course, there is the statement that the church is composed of fallible human beings but nothing they do on earth can change the sanctity of the faith. As a priest tells his congregation: "There are facts in this internet age, but does that threaten my job security? No, not really. Because there are facts and there is faith."
Of course, the irony of this film is the facts as they are revealed destroys faith, at least faith in the church, if not in the Holy Spirit.
One of the nicest touches is the arrival of a new publisher, who is not from Boston, not Catholic--Jewish in fact. His arrival is set up, not just in this film but in all the films about the news business from "Newsroom" to "The Wire" in which the guys at the top are always sleazy and concerned about the bottom line and not threatening the relationships which protect profit.
This new guy holds his cards close to his vest, but when it comes right down to it, he insists on not just getting the priests but exposing the system which protects them, on going after the head of the snake. He is the outsider who comes to town to clean up a mess which were fetid and allowed to fester because everyone in town looked the other way.
And it is this man, who saw immediately the connections, who ultimately tells the Spotlight editor who missed the story for 20 years, "We are all of us, most of the time, stumbling around in the dark. But eventually, something shines a light on the truth and you guys did some very fine work here."