Movies of the Year: A Bracing Dose of Reality

(Photo: Courtesy of Open Road Films)

Michael Keaton as Walter "Robby" Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Open Road Films' "Spotlight."

The most powerful movies of the year were based on actual events. All combined big public issues with private ethical dilemmas, and provided vehicles for terrific thrillers as well. The fact that we knew the outcome in advance did nothing to detract—the suspense was in how the protagonists found their way to the conclusion. Even better, these movies offered career-topping performances for several of the leads.

Start with the amazing “Spotlight.” In January 2002, Boston Globe readers picked up their newspapers to learn that a Catholic priest had engaged in serial episodes of sexual child abuse. But this was just the beginning. The four-person team reporting the story had discovered that close to 200 Boston area priests had been serial abusers, that the Church hierarchy—right to up the unctuous Cardinal Bernard Law—knew all about the pattern and had orchestrated a cover-up. Catholic leaders had even arranged to have the church’s lawyers pay small settlements to victims in exchange for legally enforceable vows of silence.

Offending priests were shuttled from parish to parish, to assault new victims, occasionally making pit stops to be stashed in special halfway houses. By the time it was over, Law had resigned and had been packed off to Rome, more than 1,200 victims had come forward, and the predatory priest cover-up had unraveled in scores of cities in the US and worldwide—all because newspaper reporters spent months doing serious digging, tracking down humiliated victims, scouring court documents, and unearthing church records.

The best part of the movie is not the exposé of the church’s disgrace. It’s the pitch-perfect rendition of how a newsroom actually works when reporters are on the trail of a big investigative story. The poet Robert Frost wrote: “We dance around in a ring and suppose/The secret sits in the middle and knows.” We know the truth only after the fact—and sometimes we never get there. Along the way are false leads, self-doubts, wasted time, mistrustful sources, and ethical tugs haunting editors. Sometimes the story is hidden in plain view, and reporters just miss it the first few times.

In this case, the Globe’s Metro section had previously reported a story on a few cases of priests who were sexual predators, but nobody had bothered to connect the dots to the much bigger scandal of a far wider pattern and its systematic cover-up by the Archdiocese of Boston. This was no accident. In Catholic Boston, you do not mess with the Cardinal. It took a newly-arrived editor in Marty Baron (played with elegant understatement by Liev Schreiber)—not from Boston, not Catholic, not acculturated to defer to the Church—to encourage the Spotlight team to take a harder look.

Key sources are rendered brilliantly. One is a small-time volunteer lawyer for abuse victims who actually have their own self-help organization, as the Spotlight team is shocked to learn. But he has been banging on the door for years, and doesn’t believe they will take him seriously if he persuades some of the victims to share their stories.

The other lawyer, an eccentric and obsessive plaintiff’s attorney named Mitchell Garabedian, played magnificently by Stanley Tucci, waits months before he trusts lead reporter Mike Rezendes enough to tip him off to the fact that a key sealed document, for which Rezendes has been filing court pleadings in vain, is actually part of the public record thanks to one of Garabedian’s earlier suits. This document is what ultimately confirms the Church’s cover-up. Mark Ruffalo, in the performance of his career, spent months following Rezendes around. My friend and former boss at the Globe, Renee Loth, who lived with Rezendes for 11 years, says that Ruffalo channels him uncannily.

Michael Keaton, in another career-topping performance, does Walter (“Robby”) Robinson, the Spotlight team editor, perfectly. A good Catholic lad, like many in the Globe newsroom, Robinson has traded information with the Church for years. The Church’s lawyers apply every sort of social pressure to try to get Robinson off the case. At first he hesitates. Eventually, the pressure from his own team; editor Marty Baron’s interest; the logic of the story, and his own gathering indignation at the Church’s heavy handedness, keeps him on the side of the angels, as it were. Even the Church’s lawyer is shamed into confirming, on deep background, that the Spotlight team has the story right.

The movie also gets Boston right. Beneath the intellectual glitter of the world-class universities, the medical centers, the arts, and the tech industry, is a workaday, blue collar, rather tribal Catholic small town. When I was a columnist there, the Globe did a lot of great work, but the newsroom and its culture were steeped in Catholic Boston; the publication was parochial, in both senses. (To the paper’s great credit, its columnist who covers Catholic affairs is James Carroll, who is relentless in his criticism of the Church.) It took a paper that knew the Church and all its moves so well to overcome the subtle and direct intimidation and do this investigation so perfectly.

The movie is a masterpiece of nuance. The process of piecing the story together, as in real life, is seldom triumphal. It is a long slog—but the film never is. It might be the best newsroom movie ever.

 

When “Bridge of Spies” opens, we see the face of a man. As the camera pulls back, we realize that it is an artist looking in a mirror, painting a self-portrait. Three faces of the same man—which is the reality? The man is a Soviet spy, in deep cover as an artist (and not a bad artist), and also a complex human being.  Col. Rudolph Abel, played with great subtlety by the master Shakespearian actor Mark Rylance, is in fact the head of Soviet intelligence in North America. But an underling has messed up, and the FBI has tracked him down. The Feds smash in Abel’s door while he is painting.

The U.S. government, wanting to show that in America even Soviet spies get equal justice under law, needs a lawyer to represent Abel. By a bizarre chain of events, a senior official contacts a New York lawyer friend, who delegates the job to a relatively junior associate, Jim Donovan, played by Tom Hanks.  Donovan is actually an insurance lawyer, not a criminal defense attorney, much less one schooled in national security. If this sounds improbable, remember that it all happened.

It’s 1957, the height of the Cold War, not long after the Rosenbergs were executed. The top Soviet spy in America has been caught red-handed, in three senses of the word. The country wants vengeance. But Donovan, having been drafted reluctantly for this job, decides to mount a serious defense. He contends that the evidence was seized improperly, that the government’s case is flawed. It would an overstatement to say Donovan grows to like Abel, but he develops an intense personal curiosity about Abel as a human being.

Pressure mounts on Donovan—from his law firm; his family; the government, and an indignant public—to throw the case. But Donovan persists. In the end, Abel is convicted, but Donovan has a nagging concern. What if the Soviets capture a high-ranking American spy? Isn’t Abel worth more to us alive rather than dead, in case we need to make a trade? Donovan pays a call on the presiding judge at home, to argue the point. To wide indignation, Abel is spared the electric chair and sentenced to 30 years.

Search online for Rudolph Abel, and you will see photos of a man who looks startlingly like Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies” (and the real Rylance looks nothing like Abel.) The real life Abel was a blend of Russian and German, who grew up in rural England. His accent is a mashup of English and indeterminate mittel-European, but utterly believable. His response to his situation is philosophical and ironic. One likes him. He is the perfect foil for the brashly American Jim Donovan.

Fast forward four years. Donovan, scorned by one and all, has lost his job. An American spy pilot named Francis Gary Powers, flying a super-secret U-2, has been shot down deep inside Soviet Russia. Powers, like the Soviet bunglers who led to Abel’s capture, screws up. He is supposed to kill himself, but he ejects. A fabricated story of a NASA weather plan flying off course quickly falls apart, as the Soviets announce that they have both the plane and the pilot.

Amazingly, the government turns to the same Jim Donovan, on the premise that he knows Abel better than anyone. The film pivots perfectly from courtroom drama to East Berlin thriller. The U.S. government can’t admit that Donovan is working for them, so he is totally on his own. After a series of near-disasters, the exchange is consummated.  Donovan does so well that President Kennedy calls on him to negotiate the release of the Americans captured in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Donovan gets them all back, and then some. It sure beats litigating insurance.

“Bridge of Spies” is the first collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, a pairing almost as unlikely as that of Donovan and Abel. You can see the Coen Brothers’ touch in the complex characterization of Abel and in the fake wife and daughter that the Soviets have created for Abel in Berlin, who provide some comic relief, but stop just short of burlesque.

I tend not to like most spy movies because much of the time you can’t tell what the hell is going on and the directors resort to tricks. Not so with “Bridge of Spies.” The thread of the storyline is clear throughout, leaving the viewer the capacity to appreciate the elegance of the characterizations and some of the larger questions.

Not only is “Bridge of Spies” a terrific show and an instructive history lesson, but it invites complex musings on personal courage and on ends and means. Was Abel a total bad guy because was working for the bad guys? Or was he also a professional and a patriot? Was Donovan driven by ego, or by ethics? Was Powers a coward or a hero? See the movie for yourself and decide.

 

The financial collapse of 2007-2008 was bafflingly complex in its details. But in the hands of a master storyteller, it was pretty simple in its fundamentals. That storyteller would be Michael Lewis, who has written four books on the subject.

Lewis’s approach is sheer genius. He tells the story from the perspective of the guys who get rich running the racket. You can’t put the book down, and pretty soon you grasp the scam. 

Since I also write about this stuff, including three books of my own, I must have a couple of hundred books on my shelves about different aspects of the collapse. Lewis does it better than anyone. His latest, “The Big Short,” was destined to become a movie.

Here is the essence of the story: Bankers created very complicated bonds that were ultimately backed by home mortgages. Since everybody knew that mortgages never go bad, the bonds got triple-A ratings. Over time, bankers promoted the sale of sketchier and sketchier mortgages, some with no down payment and no verification of either the value of the house or the income of the borrower. But these were all bundled into more and more opaque versions of the same bonds, and all got the same triple-A. The easy money drove up the value of housing, which promoted more borrowing. But with wages flat, the debt began to outstrip people’s ability to pay, and the entire edifice came crashing down. The crash was so big because at every level—from the borrowers to the bankers—the players were so highly leveraged.

There have been documentaries about the financial collapse, most of them grimly indignant, but “The Big Short” is a much more satisfying route to understanding just what happened. There were a few journalists and economists and public officials who saw this coming, but they are not part of Lewis’s story. In the movie, directed by Adam McCay, former chief writer for Saturday Night Live, the avenging angels are just another set of traders—four renegade financial players who figured out, early on, that the mortgage market was a house of cards. Almost by definition, they are odd ducks.

One, Michael Burry, as played by Christian Bale, is very nerdy and is among the first to actually look inside the thousands of individual mortgages that back the complex bonds. He realizes that many of them are garbage, and decides to “short”—bet against—the housing market. The trouble is that nobody bets against the housing market—it can’t be done. So he persuades Goldman Sachs to custom-design a special kind of financial instrument, a kind of credit default swap, to allow him to bet against mortgage bonds. The folks at Goldman are happy to take his money. If he’s wrong, and the housing market continues to thrive, all his capital will be eaten up in fees. If he’s right, he will be very rich.

The trouble is that Burry is too right, too soon. It’s 2005, and the mortgage market doesn’t start coming undone until 2007. In the meantime, Burry is losing his shirt, and he very nearly loses all, until his insight finally pays off.

A second player who figures this out is Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell. Baum gets wind of the fact that you can bet against mortgage bonds using swaps. Unlike, Burry, he is an angry man. He considers Wall Street financiers scum, and he wants to get rich at their expense to make a point. Two other players are small fry, working with a former, big-time trader who called it quits, and who have figured out the same game.

All eventually cash in. They didn’t cause the collapse, of course. They were just among the few to profit from the greed and stupidity of the herd. Contrary to what you hear, traders don’t keep the market honest—that takes regulators, but that’s another story.

The movie works because it brilliantly combines exposition with human drama. Its style is edgy and jangly, just like the adrenaline rush of Wall Street.

One of the hilarious devices of the film is the use of cameo appearances by celebrity guests who explain in everyday terms just how these frauds work. How do you take mortgage backed securities that are garbage and turn into even more abstract “Collateralized Debt Obligations” that are gold? The movie turns, among others, to master chef Anthony Bourdain. He helpfully explains that if the halibut doesn’t sell and you are stuck with yesterday’s fish, you don’t throw it away, you just make “seafood stew.” Thus, CDOs.

But what the heck is a CDO anyway? It’s a bet on other people’s bets. To explain, the movie installs singer Selena Gomez and Professor Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral economics, at a Las Vegas table to orchestrate groups of people betting on bets.  Gomez makes a huge blackjack bet, and the crowd bets on her bet. Uh-oh. Thus, a $50 million loss, which seemed like such a sure thing, becomes a $500 billion loss. You will never get a better or a more entertaining explanation of the forces—and scoundrels—that crashed the economy.

 

As we were watching no fewer than ten previews before they finally showed “The Big Short,” we noticed that every wretched one combined an utterly lame and derivative plot with scads of gratuitous brutality and a kind of sheer coarseness that made you cringe. The culture that can find these movies entertaining could vote for Donald Trump.

By contrast, all of these historical films showed indirect violence—the sexual violence done to children who looked up to the kindly priest who was taking a special interest in them; the menacing risk that someone would be killed in the spy exchange; and the utter brutality of tens of millions of people losing their live savings and homes. But these films manage to tell their stories without a single punch being thrown, or a shot being fired, or a woman being slapped, or a man being kicked in the nuts. The closest thing to physical violence is the testosterone-crazed world of Wall Street traders. This year, truthful films beat most fictitious ones on so many levels.

Two of the three films have satisfyingly happy endings. Cardinal Law is disgraced, the scandal is exposed, the hard work of the Spotlight team is vindicated and the Church is made to atone for its sins. The spy exchange comes off, and the persistence of Tom Hanks is rewarded. Real life is sometimes actually like that.

Not so with “The Big Short.” There is a hilarious and telling moment near the end of the movie, when the narrator declares that all ended well. The bankers who perpetrated the frauds went to prison. The government broke up the big banks. Oh, he adds, that’s not what happened.

So it goes.

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