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The Year Hollywood Questioned Its Faith

In money, God and even football. Yet America dreams on.

Dorothy Woodend 30 Dec

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee.

There is something weird happening in American movies at the moment. On the outside they look the same -- big slick productions, with lots of famous faces and fat budgets. But inside, something has changed. Three high-profile films opening in December (The Big Short, Spotlight and Concussion) tackle the largest and most enshrined institutions in U.S. society, namely: money, God and the National Football League, in that order.

Spotlight was the first out of the gate. In short, the story is about a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who uncovered the Catholic Church's practice of hiding pedophilic priests. The Spotlight team was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story and the film paints the journalists as hardworking, earnest and dedicated, almost to a fault. The ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and a truly wonderful Stanley Tucci) brings their A-game to the story, hitting beaners into the stands, one after the other. Keaton, in particular, seems to have regained some sense of purpose as an actor, and his portrayal of Walter V. Robinson gives the film genuine heart. The narrative is solid, workmanlike but still deeply satisfying, as we watch the nature of the coverup take hold and then bite hard. Scenes of these newspaper men and women pounding on people's doors, working their sources, alternately cajoling and threatening to get to the bottom of the story becomes strangely thrilling.

The thing that is most startling about the film is not the depth of corruption in the Catholic Church or in Boston's political circles, but the notion that a daily paper devoted the resources to the long hard slog of uncovering a single story. (There is nothing quite like watching old-school journos work the phones, dig through files, and use old-fashioned rulers to ferret out the rot at the heart of the Church.) It may seem quaint in this era of tweets, but there is a singular pleasure derived in watching people do their jobs, with grit, tenacity and dogged persistence.

Mind games

This same quality is what initially animates Will Smith's new film Concussion. Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who takes his job so seriously that he freaks out all his colleagues by chatting away with the dead folks he is autopsying. When the body of former-football star 'Iron' Mike Webster ends up on the good doctor's slab, the strangeness of Webster's condition inspires the pathologist to take a closer look.

At the time of his death, Webster was living in his car, pulling out his own teeth and then super-gluing them back into place. When Dr. Omalu examines Iron Mike's brain he discovers something deeply strange. At age 50, the former football player looked to be developing symptoms of early onset dementia, brought about by blows to the head sustained during his twenty-five year career. (The equivalent of being in some "25,000 car accidents" according to some estimates.) What follows is a classic tale of an idealistic outsider driven to reveal the truth that one of the largest and richest corporations in the world (the NFL) would rather hide. The story, initially uncovered by journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas, details Bennet's fight to bring to light the hitherto unknown condition called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The story has continued to unfold, with former football players like Frank Gifford donating their brains to science. Unfortunately, the film fumbles the ball, retreating back to sentiment and sanctimony, with a lot of sweeping strings and lofty speeches about what it means to be American. What lingers is the notion that the NFL has not even begun to seriously tackle the problem. As of September 2015, a study from Boston University indicated that 96 per cent of NFL players analyzed for CTE showed signs of having the condition.

Still, the game goes on.

Which is also the end result of one of the angriest and most surprising films of the year. When I saw The Big Short a couple of weeks back, I told a friend about it, who immediately said, "You must have the wrong director, Adam McKay made Anchorman and Step Brothers." I scratched my head a bit and went to check my facts, but sure enough, the same filmmaker made all of those films as well as The Big Short, now in theatres.

The Big Short is one of those rare creatures that walks the razor line between blackest comedy and deepest tragedy. It does so with a wink and a nod, but never loses its raging edge. The film, based on Michael Lewis's book of the same title, charts the housing bubble that brought the U.S. and nearly the world economy to its knees. But the real heart of the story is a worm -- a fat white grub nestled inside the American dream, feeding on people's greed for money, power and a house, plus two or three condos, to call their own.

Betting on breakdown

The first people to notice that something was rotten at the heart of Wall Street were those who called it home, the brokers, hedge funders and money men, snarling at each other, like hungry dogs. The film divides said canines into four packs, each led by a different Alpha. Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his boys at FrontPoint Partners take up the largest share of the narrative, as they strut and fret, snapping towels at each other with locker room banter and genuine camaraderie. Baum is based on an actual human being named Steve Eisman, and he serves as the moral compass in the film. Meanwhile, in San José, lone wolf Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale) operates a hedge fund named after The Scions of Shannara. (Really, you can't make this stuff up.) With his Supercuts hairdo, bare feet and brain that processes numbers far better than human feeling, Burry bets billions that the U.S. housing market will fail.

The film employs a few high jinks to better explain things like credit default swaps; celebrities like Selena Gomez pop up to put them in layman's terms. Ryan Gosling, as Jared Vennett, a Wolf of Wall Street clone, adds his two cents, with helpful narration sprinkled throughout. The remainder of the financial man show includes Brad Pitt (as former-Wall street whiz Ben Rickert) and his two young mentees, played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, who also catch wind of a coming bubble and get in on the action. Make no mistake: this is a boy movie. Marisa Tomei, as the long-suffering kindly wife of Mark Baum gets perhaps two lines of dialogue, but the rest is strictly mano-a-mano.

The film takes off at a dead run, but keeps picking up speed, as the sheer scale of fraud, lies and corruption at the centre of the American economic system becomes apparent to those folk directly involved. One doesn't know whether to laugh or spontaneously combust. You could do both, I guess. Which is essentially the miracle of the film, it is deeply angry and honestly horrified by what the American dream has become. The most terrible part is that the game goes on. The banks continue to rake in record-breaking profits, little people get squished under crushing debt and wages keep shrinking. Nothing really changes.

So, there you have it folks, there is nothing left to trust: not the church, not the banks and certainly not the National Football League. You have to feel sorry for our American friends. The shit is getting so real down there, it's even showing up in the movies. When will the worm turn? God might know, but he's too busy betting on football to say.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 21 to Jan. 3 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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