‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Big Short’ or both films based on fairly recent events, yet they still show some shocking truths. ‘Spotlight’ uses a much more subdued tone while ‘The Big Short’ uses a lot of humor and breaks the fourth wall several times. Both certainly leave viewers feeling angry at the abuses of power of the various Catholic Arch Dioceses and the various banks on Wall Street. Both films also show powerful people abusing their power and taking advantage of the vulnerable. In the case of the priests under investigation for molestation, they targeted children from poor families, often the children of single mothers. In the case of the mortgage brokers for adjustable rate mortgages, they targeted people with credit problems by luring them in with low payments then drastically raised their interest rates. Both films also follow people looking for the truth and are left disillusioned by the corruptions in institutions they once belonged.
‘Spotlight’ follows an investigative team at The Boston Globe called “Spotlight.” They have to carefully fact check everything they find and keep it a secret until they are ready to publish. Given the sensitive nature of the information, the fact that it is exposing corruption of powerful people in a powerful institution, and it is exposing it to people who do not want to accept a terrible truth; going public before gathering all of the necessary information and proof would have jeopardized the entire investigation. In 2016, it is well known that there have been priests that took advantage of vulnerable children for decades and that lay people, bishops, cardinals, and even the popes worked to cover it up rather than acknowledge the problem and do everything possible to keep the guilty priests away from children. As a lifelong Catholic, even I was shocked to see just how bad the situation was as dioceses where the child molestation by priests was problem were listed. I was shocked to see a diocese where I lived when I was in high school was listed, but not completely surprised. The Spotlight reporters are non-practicing Catholics who have their very belief structure shattered as they discover that what they had always believed was an institution of good, was trying to cling to its own power rather than embrace the responsibility of caring for the people of the world. It is very low key and subdued throughout, reflecting the sobering experience of discovering and awful truth. Michael Keaton’s character, Walter Robinson realizes at one point that he had unintentionally helped with the cover-up when he’d buried information passed to him by a lawyer deep in an obscure section of the paper years before the investigation. Rachel McAdams’ character, Sacha Pfieffer quietly watches as a devout relative reads the truth on the front page. Mark Ruffalo’s character, Micheal Rezendes eventually has an angry outburst over what has been done to innocent children and the fact that it is allowed to continue when it could be prevented.
‘The Big Short,’ is also about bringing to light a truth that a powerful institution(s) (Wall Street) does not want the general public to know and that the general public does not want to hear. It takes a somewhat less subdued approach than ‘Spotlight,’ but just as effective. There is a lot of comedy and breaking of the fourth wall. The filmmakers often interrupt the narrative when characters stop to talk to the audience or have celebrity cameos to help explain the absurdity of the workings of various high risk schemes. There are scenes where the characters try to go to the press, but reporters aren’t interested in writing the stories because the financial institutions are just too powerful. There is another scene where a woman at a credit ratings agency admits to giving top ratings to bonds that include subprime mortgages because she doesn’t want the companies to go to the competition.
Both films show that the people responsible have suffered little to no consequences for their actions. Cardinal Law, who was responsible for the cover-ups and for simply relocating guilty priests rather than firing them got a position being in charge of a Basilica in Rome and was able to resign the position of his own accord. And of course, the executive bankers who caused the financial crash got bailed out by the tax payers. Many lower level employees lost their jobs, people lost their houses when the interest rates drastically increased on adjustable rate mortgages. Executives still get large bonuses even when their terrible decisions cost companies millions or even billions. That loss is passed on to employees who lose their jobs or stockholders who lose their savings. Now, adjustable rate loans are being offered to people trying to refinance their student loans. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, certain leaders in both institutions are trying to tell people that it’s wrong to question them. Some religious leaders (Catholic and otherwise of a certain political persuasion) have been preaching that those who speak out against the rigged economic system where the poor are held accountable while the wealthy suffer no consequences are socialist guilty of coveting their neighbor’s goods. Pundits and businessmen of a certain political persuasion have been telling people that those who question the ethics of big banks gambling with the money of the general public while assuming none of the risk and taking all of the rewards resent success and don’t want to work hard. What both religious and business leaders who make these assertions fail to understand or willfully fail to acknowledge is that people do no resent success and wealth, they resent greed and corruption. ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Big Short’ are both worth seeing and worth owning. They do a great job highlighting abuses of power. They both have outstanding ensemble cast. They are both nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and can be seen at the Greene on February 25th. They will also make fine additions to any DVD or BluRay collection.