At Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony, the first two Oscars of the night were handed out to the perhaps most overlooked, under-appreciated, marginalized of all Hollywood talent: the writers.
The first Oscar was given for original screenplay and went to the writers of Spotlight (which also won the last Oscar of the night for Best Picture). The second Oscar of the night was for adapted screenplay and went to the writers of The Big Short. Although these two films couldn't be more different when it comes to tone (Spotlight is serious, traditional, restrained filmmaking at its best, while The Big Short employs a good deal of comedy and over-the-top performances as well as numerous gimmicks, including the breaking of the fourth wall, to tell its David and Goliath story), both have a lot in common.
In addition to ridiculously talented ensemble casts, they both shine a light on a broken system and misdeeds that went largely unpunished (Spotlight on the Catholic Church and the sexual abuse by priests, The Big Short on the global banking system and the greed of finance sector workers) and both have exceptional investigative journalists to thank for their inception.
Spotlight, which some are calling the best movie about journalism of all time (perhaps even besting the Redford/Hoffman thriller All the Presidents Men) and which has been wildly heralded for getting newsrooms and investigative journalism right, should no doubt inspire thousands of working journalists to continue on with their tireless, important, often thankless efforts. It should also inspire another generation of journalists to join the profession.
What Spotlight makes clear is the all important place that the investigative journalist plays in a so-called free society. Where police officers, detectives, politicians, and regulators leave off, journalists begin. And this was beautifully and heartbreakingly clear in Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy's tight, thrilling script about a group of Boston Globe journalists that unearth a sinister cover up with global implications.
To be sure, Spotlight does not depict journalism to be very glamourous. Or a job with exceptional work/life balance. In fact, it's obvious that investigative journalists work around the clock when necessary and are paid little, and that their work impacts their personal lives rather negatively. And as far as job security and thanks for a job well done is concerned, it's obvious there isn't much of either.
However, what's also clear from the film is that, at their best, jobs in investigative journalism can be among the most rewarding. Not to mention that the ability to make a difference working as a journalist can be off the charts. And if they make a movie about your story, you might even get to hit the dance floor with Hollywood elite (if you were watching the ceremony, you no doubt caught a glimpse of Mike Rezendes, the real life Globe journalist that Mark Ruffalo depicted in Spotlight; camera three went to Mike's face for reaction on numerous occasions, and he was also invited to join the cast and crew on stage for the Best Picture award acceptance celebration).
As for The Big Short, which follows a handful of investors who bet big against the housing market and thus profited handsomely when the subprime-mortgage securities hit the fan (resulting in billions of lost pension dollars and millions of lost jobs, among other calamaties), it was not about journalists in any way. However, it was based on an exceptional book written by an exceptional journalist. That journalist is Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and arguably the best investigative financial journalist working today (he is certainly the most well known).
And when accepting the Academy Award for adapted screenplay, Adam McKay, the co-writer and director of The Big Short, gave a shout out to Lewis and his brilliant book. Without which we would not have Christian Bale's death metal-loving one-eyed urologist turned hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry forever ingrained in our heads. Nor would we have Ryan Gosling's sinister, hilarious, go-for-broke performance of a vain, smooth-talking real-life Deutsche Bank banker who without much if any guilt pocketed a $47 million bonus in the housing crash. Nor would we have another excellent performance from Steve Carell, who is quickly becoming one of the best America actors at depicting the mentally unstable with grace, humor, and heart. Not to mention Brad Pitt in another un-Brad Pittian role, which is to say haggard, odd, ornery, and outsider-y.
In any case, in addition to underscoring the great work done by investigative journalist Lewis, The Big Short's Oscar win underscores the dark side of Wall Street. Which is not the PR that big banks need about now when many are struggling, firing, and doing whatever they can to hold on to young top talent. The Big Short even points out firms by name. Bale's character Burry makes Goldman, BofA, and others look, well, not so great. And bankers are shown (note: a lot of the film is over the top, and exaggerated, but not by much) to be young, vacuous white kids who are nothing more than used car salesmen but with better suits. And there is that message that The Big Short screams pretty loud and clear: Despite their hubris and greed, the big banks' employees who were connected to the subprime mortgage crisis never saw any retribution. That is, no jail time.
To be fair, there are parts of the financial services sector that are shown in a more positive light in the film. The underdogs of The Big Short that bet against the establishment (this includes Carell's character and his team; Carell's character is an ex-banker and head of a small hedge fund ultimately owned by Morgan Stanley) do come across as crusaders with consciences. And their workdays look rather exciting. Plus, their paydays look rather exciting, too.
However, unlike the investigative journalists of Spotlight, the rewards of their jobs pretty much stop there. And it's telling that, in the epilogue of the film, we learn that, after the crisis, most of the so-called Big Short underdogs left the investing game altogether, or severely lessened their roles within it. Which, yes, must have been partly due to the fact that they made millions upon millions when most everyone else was financially crushed. But I'd also like to believe it was partly due to the fact that their jobs had left them with a host of extremely unsavory tastes in their mouths.
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