There aren’t many films that bear messages of vital importance about how all of us live, here and now. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Adam McKay’s The Big Short, despite
their broad differences in theme and style, are two of those films. Both based on actual events, the two films drive their messages home without didacticism, but with more
than enough masterful storytelling and acting to please any audience.
Spotlight is the more understated of the two films, but all the more effective for its quietness. The screenplay by McCarthy
and Josh Singer begins with a prologue set in a Boston police station at Christmas 1976, in which a Father John Geoghan is being held for alleged child molestation.
“How will the Church keep the press out of the arraignment?” a young policeman asks.
“What arraignment?” answers an older cop.
The action then jumps ahead 25 years, when new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at the Boston Globe. Seeing a column
about Father Geoghan in the paper, Baron states at his first editorial meeting that pedophile priests would be a good subject for the Globe’s renowned
“Spotlight” investigative team. Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) at first balks at the assignment; the Spotlight team has
always chosen its own topics. But at Baron’s insistence—and that of top editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery)—Robinson agrees.
Robinson and his team—Mike Resendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy
James)—set to work immediately. Their work is far from easy. The victims, two or three decades after the fact, are mostly
reluctant to talk, and Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the lawyer representing most of them, is hostile at first. Meanwhile,
the records that would help their search—when they can be found—are buried in scattered libraries and repositories, some
of them fragrant with the stench of dead rats. But soon a pattern becomes apparent: in the annual indexes of Catholic priests in
Boston, the priests known to be suspects in child molestation cases bear the notations “Sick Leave” or “Unassigned” beside
their names. The reporters do a count of the rest, and are appalled: Eighty-seven priests—six percent of the priests in Boston—bear those designations.
“If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says, “it takes a village to molest a child.”
Yet finding enough evidence for a story will be a tremendous chore in Boston, a city that glories in its ties to the Church.
In an early scene, Baron—who is Jewish—pays a courtesy call to Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), Archbishop of Boston. At
the end of the visit, Law gives Baron a wrapped gift. “Consider this a cardinal’s guide to Boston,” Law says. In his car, Baron
unwraps the gift, which turns out to be a Catholic catechism.
All the evidence points to a massive cover-up orchestrated by Law. This is devastating to the Spotlight reporters, all lapsed
Catholics who nevertheless have a residual affection for the Church. Resendes is the angriest of the team, and this leads him
into a fight with Robinson. Resendes wants to publish the story immediately and expose Law as an enabler of criminals.
Robinson, however, wants to wait until they can prove the cover-up was endemic to the system; otherwise, he says, Law can issue an apology, and the whole story is dead.
Robinson, meanwhile, faces a great deal of pressure from two old friends—Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) and Pete Conley (Paul
Guilfoyle), both attorneys for the diocese—who want the story buried. “Marty Baron will be in Boston another two or three
years tops, and then he’ll move on,” Conley tells Robinson over drinks. “Where are you going to go?”
McCarthy maintains an understated tone throughout Spotlight, yet the film maintains a consistent level of urgency, aided by the
superb ensemble cast and the quietly energized music of Howard Shore. The insistent momentum of the story is helped
along by little bombshells along the way, such as Carroll’s discovery that one of the “treatment houses” for pedophile
priests is only a few blocks from his house—and his children.
Spotlight may well be the best film ever made about journalism, better even than All the President’s Men. (One critic called
it the best film about journalism since Citizen Kane, but I disagree; Citizen Kane is about Charles Foster Kane not
journalism.) McCarthy makes it plain that investigative journalism is mostly grunt work; he also makes it plain that
grunt work is honorable, moral, and even exciting. Other recent films about journalism, such as State of Play (in which McAdams also starred) and Nothing But the Truth, portrayed investigative
journalism as a dying profession held in less public esteem than used car retailing. McCarthy makes an earnest plea for the
absolute importance of investigative reporting to a free society, and at least to this old reporter it’s a very persuasive plea.
The best thing among many excellent things about Spotlight is that, although it deals with horrifying subject matter, it is never
salacious. It never stoops to blanket condemnations of the Church, even as it also never loses sight of the human wreckage
caused by the Church hierarchy’s indifference to the victims of pedophile priests. Finishing an interview in Garabedian’s office
with one such victim, Resendes notices the needle marks in his arm. “He’s one of the lucky ones,” Garabedian says. “He’s alive.”
Spotlight is an excellent film, but not a cheerful one. At its end,
it lists the hundreds of cities in the U.S. and around the world that had scandals involving pedophile priests. The Big Short is an even more sobering film than Spotlight, although the
screenplay—written by McKay and Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis—plays as a semi-comedy till its last harrowing half-hour.
The story is narrated by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Wall Street trader who almost by accident discovers a report by
California hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) outlining the imminent collapse of the U.S. housing market.
Burry, a socially maladroit eccentric who dresses for the office as he would for the beach, has uncovered the dirty secret of the
2000s: the housing market—assumed by everyone to be rock-solid—is in fact built on a foundation of subprime loans that is
set to collapse as soon as mortgage holders miss their first balloon payments.
Burry has set up a credit default swap market, allowing him to bet against the housing market. Vennett—a shark who isn’t
afraid to swim in a different direction from the other sharks—decides he will do the same.
A misdirected phone call alerts New York hedge fund
manager Mark Blum (Steve Carell) and his team to Vennett’s
plans. Although the highly strung Blum distrusts Vennett, he is persuaded that Vennett is right, and joins him in his credit default swaps.
Vennett and Blum aren’t the only ones who place their bets against the housing market. Young investors Charlie Geller
(John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) discover a report by Vennett, and enlist the help of their friend Ben Rickert
(Brad Pitt), a former Wall Street banker who left the market in disgust, to cash in on the impending collapse.
The path to the windfall, however, is far from easy. Burry faces unremitting hostility from his investors, who refuse point-blank
to believe his analysis. When he declares a moratorium on withdrawals from the hedge fund, his biggest investor (Tracy Letts) promptly sues him.
Vennett and Blum aren’t sued, but what they discover about the housing market is appalling. They find that the market is
propped up artificially by collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs—groups of unsound loans bundled together and given
AAA ratings by agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poors. A side effect of CDOs is that they encourage lenders to grant
mortgages to unqualified borrowers. Interviewing a couple of chuckleheads who grant mortgages to all and sundry, one of
Blum’s team remarks, “They’re not confessing, they’re bragging.”
The pre-collapse action culminates at the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas, where—among other
things—Geller and Shipley secure their credit default swap. They are ecstatic, but Rickert stares at them coldly.
“You just bet against the U.S. economy,” he says. And many
thousands of people will die because of the coming recession, he adds.
Stylistically, The Big Short is the anti-Spotlight. McKay’s
directorial style could not be showier; neither could the cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, the editing by Hank Corwin,
or the production design by Clayton Hartley. McKay takes enormous pleasure in his subterfuges to make the dull facts of
mortgage contracts scintillating; he has such celebrities as Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath), Anthony Bourdain and Selena
Gomez conduct object lessons as to what certain terms mean, what they signify, and what their practical effects are. The last part is the same in each case: catastrophic.
The Big Short is extremely well-made and –acted, with Bale and
Carell the standouts. It is obviously intentional on McKay’s part that the film keeps the audience on a giddy high for most of its
length, until Rickert’s pronouncement to Geller and Shipley brings it crashing down to earth. It’s a perfect simulation of the
subprime market. The ending is happy only for Vennett, who gets exactly what he wants—a $47 million bonus. “I never said I
was the hero,” he says. Meanwhile, only one banker ever went to jail for bringing about the housing market’s collapse, and Wall
Street is once again selling CDOs, only under another name.