I truly believe that film is the literature of this century. It pulls together all of the arts—the spoken word, writing, music, dance, painting, photography and more—to deliver stories that can have emotional impact across generations and continents, language notwithstanding. When Secretary of State John Kerry meets with studio heads to discuss how to counter the narratives of ISIS, no one is particularly surprised.
Yet what makes a given film compelling is not just its subject matter, but the skill of the filmmakers who take us on a journey with them. The Academy Award-nominated film Spotlight explores one of the most horrific crimes of our time—the physical and spiritual abuse of thousands of children by priests of the Catholic Church. We know how the story ends. We know that the reporters from The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer for their investigative efforts. Yet the film packs a wallop audiences simply don’t anticipate. Why?
As the dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, I see hundreds of young people each year pursuing their dreams of working in film. For them, Spotlight offers a unique lesson in filmmaking—how the way a story is told builds a foundation for emotional catharsis: how can a downbeat story still be uplifting? How can we leave the theater feeling enlightened about a subject we thought we already understood?
Spotlight is a detective story. It begins with the specific and spirals up to the universal. With the exception of the opening scene—in which a single priest is arrested and then turned loose, only to be moved to another parish by his superiors—the film unfolds entirely through dramatic incident. It does not rely on flashbacks or voice-over. What we see is happening in the present, establishing a sense of dramatic immediacy that allows us to empathize with both the victims and the reporters who are attempting to unravel this horrific story.
The style of the film reflects what the characters experience. Sophisticated tracking shots follow them through the offices of the newspaper and the streets of Boston, where doors are often slammed in their faces. They are always moving, constantly trying to get around the obstacles they encounter. While more traditional filmmaking depends on a scene shot from many angles and cut together, this shooting style demands detailed planning up front so that the shots still give us views from various angles, but seemingly all in real time.
The real story was incredibly complex, involving legal maneuvering, research in old record books, and waiting in courtrooms for access to documents—incidents that are neither visually compelling nor easily explained. But by taking on us a journey with the reporters and allowing us to see the impact of the investigation on their lives, the filmmakers convey both the growing urgency and the desperation the characters feel. We feel it too, in real time.
We see Rachel McAdams actively pursuing interviews, yet listening patiently as victims reveal their pain while victims’ rights advocate, Neal Huff, as head of the Survivors Network, expresses his despair that no one is really listening. We see Mark Ruffalo literally run as his sense of the scope of the crimes grows, along with his fear that the abuse will continue unless the vast conspiracy that covered it up can be untangled and made public.
And we feel the cross-currents—as the reporters worry that their story will be scooped by a rival paper. We see the manipulation, when the Cardinal (Len Cariou) tells the new editor (Liev Schreiber), an outsider, that another paper lost subscribers because it disagreed with the church—and then sends him away with a copy of the Catechism. And we see the constant pressure from Schreiber pushing the spotlight team to indict the system, not just the priests whose names they already have.
Finally, in a twist that leaves audiences gasping, the filmmakers wait until the credits to deliver their final punch. What began with the story of one priest arrested becomes universal, as a list of hundreds of cities around the world where abuse was uncovered scrolls across the screen.
For me, the scope of this horror was finally also personal, when the name of my town was among those rolling by. That is the lesson for young filmmakers—to find a way through compelling storytelling to take us on a journey beyond what we think we know to an ending that hits us in the gut—and stays with us as we leave the theater. Those credits are the equivalent of the chorus in a Greek play: we have witnessed misery by-by-side with human greatness.
That is the power of film, a storytelling art form that is truly the literature of this century.