Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"Spotlight" and "The Big Short"

I am so behind on my 2015 reviews, it's ridiculous.  I'm determined to at least get through all the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards ceremony.  So I'm lumping together "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" here, even though they have very little do with each other.

"Spotlight" is one of the dying breed of journalism movies, a no-frills, no-nonsense look at the investigation and reporting on the 2002 Catholic church sex abuse scandal in Boston.  We follow The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team of reporters, headed by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), under new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber).  Other members of the team include Matt Carroll (Brain D'Arcy), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who gather information, struggle to access reluctant interview subjects, and balance various interests as they decide when and how to publish what they've found.

I appreciate that "Spotlight" stays focused on the reporting, which generates plenty of drama without ever getting into the particulars of the crimes committed, and only the barest details of the reporters' personal lives.  A procedural through and through, its best moments coming from watching committed professionals doing their jobs in the face of great opposition.  But more than that, this is actually a movie about journalism more than it is a movie about a scandal, which is fantastic to see.  There's a revealing, vital subplot about Keaton's character trying to figure out why the story was overlooked or possibly buried at the paper years earlier, when they had much of the same information.

The ensemble is uniformly strong, and it's hard to single anyone out for praise because all the performances are low-key, and fairly utilitarian.  Under the minimalist, intimate eye of director Thomas McCarthy, everything is kept very grounded and free of embellishment, undercutting any hints of sensationalism.  The camera stays put for the most part, and any melodramatic dialogue tends to be brisk and to the point.  There are certainly some thrills as the story unfolds, but it comes from the mechanics of the story itself, and the real-world facts and circumstances of the scandal and cover-up.  The obvious point of comparison here is "All the President's Men," but "Spotlight" actually takes itself more seriously, resisting witticisms and style in favor of the cold, hard, facts.  And it's still so entertaining and absorbing, you're left wondering how they did it.

Now "The Big Short," on the other hand, takes the opposite approach.  Adam McKay, director of many a Will Ferrell comedy in years past, also tackles a real-world scandal - the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis.  However, his goal is to get his usual mainstream audience invested in a subject that most find impenetrable.  His solution is to pile on the humor, metatextual elements, and loads of style.  Celebrities are recruited for cutaway segments to explain various financial terms.  Characters break the fourth wall to comment on what has been changed in a scene for dramatic effect.  The editing is frenetic and the cinematography unorthodox - often to the picture's detriment - but McKay succeeds in delivering one of the freshest, most invigorating films of his career.

Now, all the Wall Street players involved can be considered unscrupulous to some extent, but McKay puts us on the side of a relatively sympathetic group of them, the few oddballs that saw the crisis coming, and managed to come out ahead by shorting the US housing market.  Hedge fund managers Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), veteran trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and newbies Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) all find themselves ahead of the curve, and scrambling to verify their information and best position themselves to weather the oncoming storm.  The more they dig into the situation, the more horrible financial practices and outrageous lack of oversight they uncover.

The ensemble is very good, but Steve Carrell is the clear standout as Mark Baum, the one character who is really bothered by the thought of profiting off of others' misfortunes.  He's an anti-corruption crusader and the film's conscience, who is truly shaken to the core by what his team uncovers.  Sure, all the fast, zippy pulling-off-the-big-job shenanigans are a lot of fun, but what makes the film so memorable and so effective is the way that the narrative guides the audience from amusement to outrage.  This certainly isn't the first film about the 2008 financial crisis, but it's one of the most important, because it really gets across on a relatable level how heinous the behavior of the bad actors was, and how complicit so many of our major institutions were.

I have some minor issues with the film - McKay's quick cutting and weird framing make the action difficult to follow at some key points, and the decision to narrow the scope to a group of photogenic white guys grates a bit - in real life the players were more diverse - but overall it's remarkably solid.  It's not in the same class as "Spotlight," but then it's not trying to be.  This movie seemed to come out of nowhere, fairly late in the season, and it's one of the year's best surprises


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