Friday, June 24, 2016

"The Big Short" and "Spotlight" Tackle Uncomfortable Truths Enroute to Screenplay Oscars

The Big Short uses Jenga to explain the unsound structure of CDOs.
Late in The Big Short, Brad Pitt, who gets to play a voice of reason and anger in a landscape of sly schmucks just as he did in 12 Years A Slave and Killing Me Softly, chastises his compatriots, saying, “If we're right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?” It’s a sobering moment, one that is undercut by the character’s willingness to go along with the scheme he's involved with, as well as his assurance that excitement is ok as long as you “just don’t fucking dance.”

That scene perfectly highlights the fact that while the featured players in The Big Short pride themselves on being anti-Wall Street crusaders, they're actually worse than all the amoral scum that started the problem by banking on high risk subprime loans, because they know better and still opt to short the investments. No matter how you slice it, these are men who looked at a terrible situation and decided to profit off of it instead of doing something about it, making the situation 10 times worse in the process. They may have thought they were sticking it to the big banks for screwing the American people, but by trying to profit in the offing, they guaranteed the American people would be left holding the bag. 

The Big Short doesn't shy away from the issue, even while it's courting viewers to root for all these shifty characters. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) opts to leave hedge funds behind because "business kills the part of life that is essential," while the film's smug narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) cops to being a douche, saying “I can feel you judging me. It’s palpable.” Vennett admits he's not the hero of this story, right after which a quick cut to Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), the most incensed of our protagonists, acts as movie code for "here's your hero."
And he is... sort of. He's the lead of the film, the one with a tragic back story that has filled him with anger and made him obsessed with taking on the system. He's hubristically convinced he can hurt the big banks where it counts, but in doing so he fails to account for just how sneaky they can be. When he finally realizes that type of victory is impossible – when he dines with a particularly vile piece of work and learns the banks have responded to the short sales on their collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) by shorting the shorts with synthetic CDOs comprised of credit default swaps – he decides if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. He tells his team to "short everything that man has touched," further adding to the mounting crisis. Later, when he finally opts to sell, the movie asks us to sympathize with Baum, because the banks got bailed out and he rightly predicts that in a few years everyone will just "be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
I don't know how to respond to that -- part of me loves that the film coaxes us to root for these guys, making us complicit in their scheming, only to have us come out the other end incensed and angry at everyone, these characters included. But most of me just wants to take a bath. There’s an ingrained desire in a film like this to have a character to gravitate toward, someone who distances him or herself from all the hustlers and sort of condemns them for what they've done, ala Bud Fox in Wall Street. But ultimately, I think writer/director Adam McKay made the right call avoiding that type of plotting, and that's specifically because it left me so much more outraged as a result. 
Like The Wolf of Wall Street before it, The Big Short employs a flippant dark-comic approach in its depiction of financial corruption, even going so far as to break the fourth wall with multiple celebrity cameos to make the financial terminology easier to understand. The tone works, and so too does the disdainful and cynical mood that is engendered by an ending note that warns CDOs have come back into the current market as "bespoke tranche opportunities," not to mention the ludicrous moment in which the leads are mentioned in the same breath as Robert Redford in All the President's Men.
Dogged investigative journalism unearths a major Church sex
scandal in Spotlight.
That Redford comparison would be far more apt for the characters of Spotlight, which takes a far more serious approach to what is essentially a very similar story. Sure, The Big Short takes aim at the 2008 financial crisis brought on by the U.S. housing bubble, while Spotlight tackles child molestation cover-ups by the Catholic church, but both function as cinematic activism about uncomfortable truths, or, put another way, as dramatized public service announcements about renegades railing against entrenched institutional villainy. The main characters in each film even sit on their scandalous information for an extended period of time, but while analysts in The Big Short do so to reap the financial benefits (and because the banks won't allow the other shoe to drop until they distance themselves a bit from the fallout), the reporters in Spotlight do so to ensure they write a strong story built on evidence so they can truly make a difference and enact change (and because of delays related to the tragedy on September 11).
Spotlight is a procedural set against the backdrop of a unique time in journalism, right when the proliferation of Internet content brought on a whole slew of cost-cutting measures and online poser "journalists" that crippled the previously prestigious and powerful print media. Long-term investigative journalism in which a reporter (or in the case of the Boston Globe's Spotlight team, a whole team of reporters) spent months breaking a huge story by rooting out actual nuggets of verifiable information used to be common practice, but now there's barely enough money to adequately staff breaking news coverage and even less time to properly confirm sources. The Globe's Spotlight team is still doing this type of work, but such opportunities are increasingly few and far between. As such, Spotlight also serves as a love-song to a profession that has fallen on hard times, but that, at its best, can expose corruption and righteously check institutional injustice as the fourth estate.
At the outset of the film, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), a new editor from outside the city, is brought in to take over the Globe, and immediately the newsroom is whispering about potential layoffs and apprehension over his lack of Boston roots. His first order of business is to question the staff about a column that mentioned 25 defendants have hired lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to bring a civil lawsuit against a catholic priest accused of sexually abusing more than 100 children. The records are sealed, and unlike the rest of the Globe staff, many of whom have ties to the church, Baron, a Jewish outsider unfamiliar with the power and influence the church wields in the city, wonders why. And so he puts the four-man Spotlight crew on the case, all of whom have a different reaction to the case, especially as the number of potential victims continues to grow.
Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is so shaken by the victims and perpetrators she interviews that she stops going to mass and finds it difficult to talk with her devout grandmother. Meanwhile, Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) is alarmed that the church has a house for "retired" priests right down the block from his family home, and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is angry, so angry that he wants to publish the information as soon as possible to protect the public. Section editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) wants to wait, mostly to get the story right (he needs to convince a source he has a personal relationship with to confirm information), but also partly because of the shame he feels because he, and anyone who came across this information in the past, deserves some blame for not exposing all of this a long time ago. As Garabedian says, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."
In a story like this, process trumps character, but writer/director Tom McCarthy (who shed light on the less attractive qualities of modern journalism as an actor on season 5 of The Wire) peppers in a series of effective character moments without ever tipping the scales into heavy-handed melodrama. It helps to have such a phenomenal cast giving one lived-in performance after another. Ruffalo and McAdams received nominations for their work, but everyone is on point here, especially Keaton, Schreiber and Tucci. They bring gravitas, authenticity, compassion, and a palpable sense of tenacious professionalism.  
The Big Short and Spotlight are two of 2015's tightly-structured films, and so it should surprise no one that they walked away with the screenplay awards at this year's Oscars. Both cover infuriating systemic treachery, albeit in completely different walks of life and with completely different point of views. If I prefer Best Picture winner Spotlight, it's mostly because it left me entirely satisfied by its well-oiled machinery and the win for the good guys, especially compared to The Big Short, which, by design, left me unsettled and foaming at the mouth.
The Big Short A-, Spotlight A