The Oscars, that self-congratulatory Hollywood spectacle that only sporadically gets it right, are tomorrow night. I didn't feel there were any truly transcendent films this year (LaLa Land, which will clearly win everything, was good but not great), so I thought instead I would look back on the two Best Screenplay winners from last year to highlight what I feel separates a brilliant piece of filmmaking from an utter piece of garbage.
There will be spoilers ahead.
Spotlight was last year's Best Picture winner. It also tied as my favorite film of 2015 along with Mad Max: Fury Road (they represent such different aspects of filmmaking that they are almost impossible to compare, but both are examples of superlative cinema). I was sure The Revenant, a beautiful but meaningless spectacle designed to get Leonardo DiCaprio a Best Actor win, would prevail and was pleasantly surprised when Spotlight instead took home both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Spotlight tells the true story of a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002. It is a superbly acted and extremely economical piece of filmmaking. It is also, in our current political climate, a timely reminder of the critical role played by independent, fact-based journalism in checking the power and corruption of large, influential institutions.
But purely as a piece of filmmaking, Spotlight is terrific. The opening scene starts with a retirement party. It then cuts to the Spotlight crew bringing a piece of cake down to their offices - which are not in the same area as the other journalists - for Mark Ruffalo's character. In just a few short minutes, the movie establishes several things: that there is a new editor at the Globe; that the Spotlight team is a special unit separate from the rest of the paper; that Ruffalo is such a workaholic he would prefer to stay in his office then go up to the retirement party; and that Michael Keaton likes cake. These are all critical plot and character elements that will influence the trajectory of the movie. We need to know them. And they are effortlessly communicated to us in a few minutes through a quick series of scenes, no clunky exposition required. It is an instructive example of the old dictum, Show Don't Tell.
The movie is full of this kind of economical filmmaking. Keaton, the head of the team (and riding a wave of impeccable role choices lately), is always seen eating from a vending machine, implying he has no time for a proper meal because he works so much. Ruffalo, who nails this part, is also always shown working. In one scene in his apartment, we see the implied remnants of a lonely, work-obsessed life: old pizza box on the table, a half-empty beer, an oblique reference to an absent wife. The film simply creates this reality and allows us to observe it. The characters never directly state their feelings and goals, as they often do in much shittier movies. We have to understand what the stakes and motivations are from the clues the film provides us. When done well, this makes for great cinema.
Spotlight in general abstains from flashiness. I don't usually like movies based on true stories, because filmmakers often try to inject some manufactured element of drama into them. But thankfully, there are no fictional examples of derring-do or sinister villains (other than the Church and the priests, which are more conceptual villains than actual criminal masterminds) or improbable romances. It just tells us, plainly and simply, how the team broke the case, making the point that investigative journalism is still needed even as the financial structure of print journalism makes it more challenging to fund it in a digital age.
Because it is so under-stated, and so well acted, the film feels authentic. There are quite a few shots that incorporate the city of Boston in the back-drop, neatly cultivating a sense of place and time without clubbing you over the head with it. You come to understand, from the confident language of the film and the strength of the acting, that bringing down the Church is a major deal in heavily Roman Catholic Boston. They are dealing with a powerful institution, and revealing some of its rotten core will damage the community. This is driven home in a quiet scene between Rachel McAdams and her devoutly Catholic mother, who has just read the story. There is no bombast, just a heart-broken and softly spoken request for some water from an old lady as she tries to wrap her mind around the news. It is a great scene that conveys both the weight and tragedy of the team's investigation through subtle character cues.
This kind of filmmaking is all too rare, and it's what made Spotlight so deserving of the Oscar, especially for Best Screenplay. The script is so tight. It gives us just about everything we need to know about character motivations, back-story and important plot elements simply by showing them to us in the context of the film's world. And then it goes about the work of unfolding a cerebral story in a compelling and straightforward way, allowing us to puzzle out for ourselves the personal toll it will take on the characters and the community, the institutional constraints and potential backlash standing in the way which create the film's central tension and drama, and why all of it makes the conclusion - where the paper successfully speaks truth to power - so satisfying. It is simply an excellent film, that trusts its audience.
On the other hand, we have The Big Short, which is also based on true events concerning financial speculators who shorted the market during the Global Financial Crisis. It won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Let me just say: everything that Spotlight gets right, this pile of shit gets completely wrong.
Start with the beginning. Christian Bale opens the movie by looking directly into the camera - which decides at that exact moment to pointlessly zoom in on his face and throw it out of focus - and then states in a voice-over that he has always been a weirdo loner. Needless to say, this is the textbook definition of Telling, Instead of Showing. The entire film is so shot through with similar instances of characters telling us what they are feeling or what their motivations are that it pretty much happens at least once in every scene. That is lazy writing.
In part, the screenwriters found this shortcut necessary because the film is simply too expansive. It tries to tell a very complex story featuring four different groups of protagonists, while simultaneously bringing the audience up to speed on complex financial terms, and the history of a major financial collapse. This is a nearly impossible task, which makes you wonder why they even tried to adapt it at all. But even given the challenges, their solutions are mind-boggling for their idiocy.
In order to acquaint the audience with the necessary financial jargon to follow the plot, several times the movie stops in its tracks for surreal detours where celebrities explain things like Collateralized Debt Obligations. The weirdest one involves Selena Gomez trying to explain what a synthetic CDO is at a blackjack table, but it's just so much meaningless word salad as she woodenly parrots phrases she clearly doesn't understand off a cue card. It is said that Shane Carruth cast himself in Primer because he found actors were not able to realistically recite technical dialogue. It appears this is true.
The visual style of the film is also maddening. It tries to convey that this is a true story by employing cinema vérité stylistic touches, like the aforementioned random zoom. The shaky, handheld quality is supposed establish a sense of realism and immediacy and convince us that this is just a minor mutation away from being a documentary. Call me old fashioned, but I like it when objects are properly framed in a shot. And I hate it when the DP just hits the zoom button and hopes for the best while rocking back and forth (we should all hate Paul Greengrass just a little bit for this).
And remember how I said films based on true events have an annoying tendency to manufacture drama? Steve Carell (who is woefully miscast) is given a character back-story where his brother committed suicide. This only exists so that the character can have some kind of arc, and sets him up for a supposedly cathartic moment in the film's climax where Carell, as the financial system teeters on the brink of collapse, tearfully acknowledges that he should have done more to try and save his brother.
This is the worst kind of clumsy "character development" imaginable, where you give a character a clunky piece of baggage just so they can neatly resolve it at an opportune moment in the plot. Because the machinery behind it is so blatant it doesn't feel earned, and it doesn't feel real. It feels stupid and superfluous. In contrast, remember how Spotlightallowed character moments of great emotional depth to shine by simply building on what we already knew about the characters? There was no need for fake emotional catharsis cribbed from Screenwriting 101. Moments of great depth and meaning emerged from good acting and strong character work that built up to them. That's the way you make a big moment work in a film. Not by telling us: "This character is sad and guilty because his brother died. Now he is relieved because he acknowledges his sadness and guilt." Who the fuck voted for this to win Best Screenplay??
So, the visual style of the film is awful. It falls into the familiar trap of trying to clumsily inject fake dramatic moments to spice up true events. It's stretched too thing, and trying to do too much. The casting is pretty bad. But, perhaps most egregiously, the film is misleading. This is also a weakness in Michael Lewis' book, upon which the movie is based. In both, the main characters are more or less portrayed as heroes. They are seen as speaking truth to power about the consequences of predatory lending and the chain of bad financial voodoo leading from there back to Wall Street.
But that didn't stop them from exploiting it. All of them made huge fortunes by buying credit default swaps that paid out if triple A-rated securities collapsed in value. They discovered a weakness, successfully shorted the market and walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, their interest in the swaps helped to initially build and feed the market for more swaps which made the ultimate reckoning much worse than it would otherwise have been. Yet, because this is a film, it must have heroes of sorts and so the main characters just sort of get sucked into that role by virtue of narrative inertia if nothing else. And most people, I would wager, end up giving them a pass while pinning all the blame on the big banks.
The movie pays lip service to the human suffering caused by their profiteering, but it does so in a typically lazy and clumsy way. Brad Pitt, who is in this movie for some reason, at one point turns and declares: "Every time the unemployment rate goes up by one percent, forty thousand people die." Then he walks away. This movie is simply not equipped to even scratch the surface of the moral complexity it purports to unearth.
Instead, our affable muckraking anti-heroes short the market, walk away rich and kind of feel bad about it. Sort of. What could have been a really interesting exploration of their own complicity in creating a market for swaps that helped crash the financial system is instead treated in the same lazy, off-handed and poorly executed manner as every other aspect of the film. Plus, the fact that these guys were actually very minor players compared to the institutional investors who loaded up their balance sheets with billions of dollars in both CDOs and swaps is completely glossed over.
This is a terrible film in almost every way. It is badly structured, badly shot, badly written and ultimately glosses over the complicity of the protagonists in profiting off the collapse of the financial system. It doesn't have enough time to give more than the vaguest attention to any one idea, concept or character and is a complete and total mess. And when you hold it up in comparison to a tightly written, terrifically acted and intellectually stimulating film like Spotlight, its deficiencies become all the more glaring. It is, in short, just the kind of movie one would expect to win an Oscar.