“Individual, institution, ideology” – an essay on Spotlight

While watching Spotlight, one of this year’s Academy Award Best Picture nominees, I cerebrated that the greatest journalist in the history of cinema is neither Charles Foster Kane nor Bob Woodward, but lawyer turned documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman set out to replicate in the late 20th century United States what Emile Zola had done to the Second French Empire in the mid-19th century. The Naturalist novelist Zola wrote a series of twenty novels (Les Rougon-Macquart) that used aesthetic means of storytelling in order to critique the corrupt institutions of Napoleon III’s government.

Each of Zola’s novels grappled with a different institution, set amid a story of a genetically corrupted member of the Lantier family. For example, in La Bête humaine (1890), a train engineer, Jacques murders women when he is sexually attracted to them. At the end of the novel, the reprobate is thrown from the speeding train by his fireman, in retribution for the engineer having slept with his wife.

Set in 1870, the driverless train speeds to the front of the Franco-Prussian War, while drunken soldiers sing, oblivious to both aspects of their imminent doom, at the hands of the train crash, and in the war France is destined to lose. Zola positions the train as a failed ship of state, doomed to crash not only because of Lantier’s debauchery, but also because of the many social institutions (the judiciary, the military, the bourgeoisie) that have allowed him to exist. The very institution of nationalized travel, the train system, the lifeblood of the country, has its arteries clogged.

For his part, Wiseman has spent almost fifty years making similar aesthetic investigations of American institutions, using not the Naturalist novel but the documentary film as his critical tool. The first is the most infamous, Titicut Follies (1967), a scathing indictment of the inhuman care of the criminally insane inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital. His best film is his second, High School (1968), a damning critique of Northeast High School in Philadelphia, a purportedly successful, “good” school that turns out to be a factory churning through soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War.

Although he has recently slowed his pace, Wiseman has continuously shown the inner workings of crucial yet otherwise understudied institutions that affect our lives in untold ways. Missile (1987) studies in minute detail how soldiers are trained to turn the keys to launch nuclear warheads, and thus dutifully become responsible for global annihilation. That such training works impeccably is what Wiseman, using only direct cinema methods (observing without manipulation in voice-over or music) offers as the central thesis of his films. Wiseman continues to edit his footage aggressively, extracting that which is otherwise hidden about how people do and do not function in organized groups, for example, at the State Legislature (2006) and the Boxing Gym (2010).

I thought about Wiseman the whole time I watched Spotlight, a touted film about a team of journalists investigating for The Boston Globe in 2002 the decades of sex abuse of children by Catholic priests. The film is well worth seeing, full of engaging performances by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery as the team of journalists breaking the story about the cover-up of the abuse by the Church. Stanley Tucci steals the show as Mitchell Garabedian, a gruff but relentless lawyer working behind the scenes for justice for the victims.

But by no means is Spotlight the great film previous commentators have led you to believe it is. The film, of course, has its heart in the right place. The filmmakers know to indict the individualistic logic of American culture, the typical Hollywood screenplay structure that only emphasizes the culpability of bad individuals in order to celebrate the inherent goodness of most people.

To its credit, Spotlight correctly captures the parochialism of Boston, fundamentally a small town whose inhabitants are affected by what foundational American Studies scholar Perry Miller once termed “the New England Mind,” an isolationism that is cold and indifferent to outsiders. The heroic lawyer Garabedian tells the principal researcher, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) that the new editor at the newspaper, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) might be able to bring the story to light because, “It takes an outsider.” The idealized Mike, a passionate crusader for justice, likens the defense of the clergy to the good Germans argument in the wake of World War II. And, most crucially, Baron demands that his reporters “focus on the institution, not the individual.”

Indeed, the magnitude of the abuse, and the multiple mechanisms through which it was covered up, indicate quite clearly that the evil that destroys on a grand scale functions at the sociological, and not the individual, level. However, by celebrating the exquisite skill of the reporters, the film indicts the Catholic Church but only glosses the role of its own institution, journalism, in the cover-up. In the last minutes of the film, the leader of the Spotlight team, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) comes to learn that crusaders a decade before had sent him evidence of the scandal. Oblivious to the importance of the story, Robinson allowed a small article to be buried in the Metro section, guaranteeing that it would have no impact whatsoever.

This is where a great film about this story would start, not end. What cognitive frames were in place for Robinson to not even notice that which contradicted the expected? How are such frames created, and how might journalists know how to see through them when incongruous data arrives on their desks?

If anything, Truth (2015), a largely ignored film about journalism released shortly before Spotlight, grapples with this question in a more compelling way. James Vanderbilt’s compelling film studies the failure of journalistic instincts, as Mary Mapes and Dan Rather air a critical story about George W. Bush’s National Guard service on 60 Minutes, partially relying on what would be revealed as forged evidence. While Truth is nowhere near the kind of complex film of the sort that Frederick Wiseman makes, it at least understands that to make an important film about social life, you either need to demonstrate the failures in logic that govern the institution (as does Truth and High School) or document meticulously how a well-functioning institution like the military industrial complex imperils our very existence, as we see in Missile. By never leaving the institution of journalism, Spotlight cannot properly account for the failures in logic of the Catholic Church, nor can it understand that institution’s impressive skill at covering up the truth for decades. These are the gambits Wiseman’s cinema teaches us to demand of a great film that would seek to understand an institution, whether functioning for or against the betterment of our social lives.

Spotlight at least tries to indict the institutional power of the Catholic Church in Boston, but does not even scratch the surface of how and why the industrial practices of journalism have failed us. Even Truth ends up an apology for Mary Mapes and Dan Rather whom the film insists are well-intentioned individuals. We await a truly great film about journalism—Zola-esque in its scope—that would place the institution of newsgathering amid the more general intellectual corruption of American life, a state that has led to a dangerously ill-educated and ill-informed population more concerned with Kim Kardashian than Kim Jong-un.