Published on: December 11, 2015
I am happy to be able to recommend three movies to you this week, all of which share a common attribute. While they take place during different time periods, have entirely different tones and concern vastly different subjects, they share a sense of outrage and disappointment about institutions that have let down the very people they were supposed to serve. These movies, I think, should make any reasonable person angry at how events transpired ... and should be must viewing this holiday season.
Let's start with Spotlight
, the extraordinary movie about the extensive and landmark investigation conducted by the Boston Globe
into the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston archdiocese, and the decades-long policy of covering up and, ultimately, enabling these events that was practiced by church officials.
Almost everybody knows some small piece of this story - either as it unfolded in Boston or in other locations - but Spotlight
is a painstakingly detailed look at not just the individual crimes (and sins), but also at the ways in which the church exercised its considerable power in Boston. This may be the most important movie I've seen this year, and it is every bit as good as All The President's Men
in the way it portrays the investigative journalists pursuing the story; these reporters are not perfect, and they're not saints, but they are filled with both compassion for their victims and revulsion at the actions of the predators and their enablers. But they're also competitive ... they want the story right, but they also want the story first, because that's how success is measured.
The acting is, across the board, first rate: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber are just some of the actors who turn what could've been stereotypes into flesh-and-blood people. (I'm told by people who know that both the journalistic environment and the journalists themselves are captured with neat total-accuracy.) The direction by Tom McCarthy creates a Boston in which the truths often can be found in the shadows, and the script by McCarthy and Josh Singer is filled with nuance.
Now, I must confess something. In watching Spotlight
unfold, I felt - perhaps more than with any movie I've ever seen - that I knew every single person onscreen. I grew up going to Catholic schools, in a family where priests and nuns were pretty much deified, and yet, like some characters in the film, I did not know what was going on. (I've since learned that there was plenty, and I actually feel a little guilty about not knowing it. Also, while I think it is fair to say that I was the victim of some emotional and physical abuse, none of it was sexual.) But I knew all those people, and I shared many of their experiences with the Catholic Church and its hierarchy.
And, while I did not work as a newspaper reporter for very many years, I felt like I knew those people as well. I've been in those newsrooms, I've made those kinds of phone calls, and I've knocked on those kinds of doors ... albeit never in pursuit of a story so dramatic and important.
What worries me, and worried me even as I was watching this amazingly compelling movie is that it is possible that not nearly enough has changed.
The second movie I'd like to recommend to you in The Big Short
, which is a comic and unconventional retelling of the events that led up to the economic crisis and near financial collapse of 2007 and 2008, based on the book by Michael Lewis. Directed and co-written for the screen by Adam McKay (best known for movies like Anchorman
and Talladega Nights
, The Big Short
realizes that it is getting into some pretty deep weeds by doing a film in which credit default swaps are the least complicated financial instrument being described.
This is where I think the movie really is brilliant. When it comes to some arcane financial concept, the movie breaks the fourth wall and explains it to you. Like the moment when the movie concedes that "it's pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it's supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you just to leave them the (bleep) alone. So here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain." And then they cut to the utterly gorgeous Robbie, who explains sub-prime mortgages while sipping champagne in a tub. Chef Anthony Bourdain performs the same function at one point, explaining collateralized debt obligations while making fish stew. Suddenly, all is clear ... and the movie manages to be outrageous, unexpected, entertaining, accessible and educational all at the same time. It is, to my way of thinking, far superior to The Wolf of Wall Street
, which seemed to traffic more in shock value than any sort of real enlightenment.The Big Short
is less like Ocean's 11
than the trailers and commercials might lead you to expect, but this actually is a good thing .... because the events that it describes are very real, and the extent of the greed and willful criminality that almost brought the nation's economy crashing down cannot be exaggerated. The actors are excellent - Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt all play financial experts who see economic weaknesses that nobody else does, and try to figure how to exploit them. That's not to say they are heroes ... because there are no real heroes in this story.
And what will - or should - really scare you is how little seems to have changed.
Finally, there is a Trumbo
, a much smaller movie than the other two, about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted during the late 1940s when he refused to testify before the US Congress about his past associations in the Communist party. This is an admiring yet rounded portrait, largely because of the first-rate work by Bryan Cranston in the title role; while he has at every moment the ethical and moral high ground (largely because the Congress and popular sentiment were surrendering to fear-mongering ... hard to believe, I know), his Trumbo is not without faults as he ignores his family as he fights against the blacklist.
Again, the creative work here is excellent - by Diane Lane, Louis C.K., John Goodman and especially Helen Mirren in supporting roles, and in Jay Roach's direction and John McNamara's screenplay.
(By the way ... whenever I see movies about the blacklist I feel compelled to recommend The Front
, one of the rare movies in which Woody Allen starred that he did not write or direct. He plays a "front" for blacklisted screenwriters, submitting work under his name so that they can still play their craft ... and the remarkable thing about it is how many of the people involved in the movie - from co-stars Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi to director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein - were actually victims of the blacklist. The Front
was made in 1976, but it remains both topical and timely.)Trumbo
is a movie very much about what happens we we lose touch with what are supposed to be our nation's ethical underpinnings, and how difficult it is for even good people to say and do the right thing when the winds of change seem to be blowing in the wrong direction.
And I find myself wondering ... more than six decades later, how much really has changed.
All three movies - Spotlight
, The Big Short
, and Trumbo
- remind us of an uncomfortable fact ... that the institutions in which we often place our trust and faith can and often will let us down. Whether it is the Catholic Church, the nation's financial system, or the US Congress, we are reminded in these movies that institutions often serve only to reinforce their own power and prestige, not to serve the people who make them possible. In watching these movies, all within the space of the week, I found myself uplifted by their various artistic achievements, but also a little disgusted by their core messages.
But sometimes that's okay, as long as we emerge from the experience reminded of our responsibilities as people and citizens, and of how important it is not to be intimidated or made fearful by those who seek to dominate the narrative.
Sometimes, we have to say what Woody Allen's character says at the end of The Front
... I'd repeat it here, but it really is better if you Google it.
On Monday I'm going to do something I've never done before ... Mrs. Content Guy and I are going to be in the audience for a taping of "The Jerry Springer Show."
And to answer the first question I almost always get when this show comes up, yes, they're still making 'The Jerry Springer Show." In fact, it is celebrating 25 years on television this season, which is remarkable by any measurement.
The second question you are likely to ask is, "Why?"
It is simple, really, My son, Brian, who is pursuing a career in television, is a production assistant on the show, which is taped just a few miles from our home in Connecticut. And we want to see what he does for a living, so he arranged tickets ... it ought to be memorable.
By the way, Brian tells me that if any MNB readers who either live in or are visiting the New York metropolitan area would like to attend a taping of 'The Jerry Springer Show," he's happy to arrange tickets. (And maybe even a special Jerry gift.)
Just call him at 203-564-1284, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org ... and make sure you mention that you are an MNB reader.
I wrote last week about making a lamb and artichoke stew ... and promptly got several emails asking me for the recipe. To be honest, I've adapted it from an old frugal Gourmet cookbook...but here it is.
1 tablespoon butter
2 lbs boneless lamb, trimmed and cubed
3 yellow onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
6 ounces tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
2-3 (14 ounce) cans artichoke hearts, drained and quartered (NOT marinated)
In very large frying pan, melt butter.
Add lamb and sauté until lightly browned.
Add Essence, to taste. (I like lots.)
Remove lamb and sauté onions, and garlic in pan drippings until tender.
Put lamb, onions, garlic into a large pot.
Add salt, pepper, tomato paste, and wine, simmering, covered, until lamb is tender (about 1 1/2 hours).
Add artichokes and simmer another 1 1/2 hours.
Serve with rice pilaf. Enjoy.
I have a wonderful chianti to recommend this week - the 2013 Giacomo Mori, which was absolutely delicious with a lasagne I made. Yum.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.