Public’s Skeptical View of Politics, Institutions Reflected in Oscar-Contending Screenplays

The public’s skeptical view of institutions is reflected in many — but not all — of the screenplays in the conversation for awards

America’s sacred cows just don’t get the respect they used to.

Warner Bros.’ 1959 “The FBI Story” concludes with “sincere thanks” to J. Edgar Hoover “for making this world of ours a safer place in which to live.” Yet in the studio’s 2015 “Black Mass,” the agency makes Boston a singularly deadlier place to live, as agent John Connolly conspires to hand over syndicate control to ganglord/snitch Whitey Bulger.

Venerable institutions that once enjoyed a free pass from Hollywood now routinely come under harsh scrutiny. To paraphrase “Casablanca,” no one will be “shocked, shocked!” to learn government, clergy, media and the sports establishment can’t be trusted. But there’s a fresh energy in screenwriters’ gumshoe passion to ferret out corruption wherever it lurks.

Often, we’re told, the fish rots from the head. According to Mark Mallouk, “Black Mass” co-scripter with Jez Butterworth, the ’70s success of “The Godfather” literally made the FBI place a bull’s-eye on the Mafia while turning a blind eye to Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. “When they took down La Cosa Nostra, the higher-ups did a victory lap for five years,” Mallouk reports. “That was the culture that allowed Whitey Bulger to thrive.”

Twisted realpolitik also drives dark bureaucratic puppetmasters of “Sicario” to push boundaries of law and morality. Writer Taylor Sheridan phrases their policy as, “if we can’t win the drug war, at least we can control the bleeding,” the rationale for paramilitary assassinations that grease the wheels for Colombian kingpins. (The pic’s shocking covert mission is fictional, Sheridan admits, but “it wasn’t a stretch.”)

Other institutions suffer from true-believer root rot. Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” indicts the National Football League for denying new science on football violence’s effect on brain injury, but it’s rabid fans, “Concussion” implies, who make the NFL’s denial possible.

“Why did so many people look away, from politicians to lawyers to cops, to journalists even? When an institution is beloved, there are always people rushing to support it.”
Josh Singer

“It’s a collective failure,” agrees Josh Singer, citing a theme he and Tom McCarthy focus on in “Spotlight.” Boston Catholic prelates enabled child molesters among the clergy, yet “we were fascinated by the community around the church, and the deference they all paid. … Why did so many people look away, from politicians to lawyers to cops, to journalists even?” Singer hypothesizes “when an institution is beloved, there are always people rushing to support it.”

Though plucky journalists are frequently dramatized as truth-seekers, the Fourth Estate itself can come under a screenwriter’s gimlet eye. Singer notes the Boston Globe spiked the abuse story for years. In James Vanderbilt’s “Truth,” a “60 Minutes” team implies sinister collusion between CBS and the Bush White House in discrediting Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes, even as the Mapes team’s dubious tactics raise their own ethical questions.

Still, some scribes are bucking the cynical/skeptical trend.

In “Brooklyn,” adapter Nick Hornby presents the Catholic Church as a source of generosity and succor. (The “Spotlight” team would come up with squat if they nosed around Father Jim Broadbent’s parish.) “Concussion” crusaderBennet Omalu is sustained by his Catholic faith in a country that has made football a national religion.

Meanwhile, the NASA of “The Martian” marshals international cooperation for a deep space rescue. Adapter Drew Goddard grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., where “my friends and their parents all worked for ‘the company,’ which is the lab.” His memories fueled the screenplay’s upbeat, can-do vibe.

“Any large corporation will have its headaches,” Goddard says. “But it’s always about the people on the ground … genuine people doing their best under difficult circumstances. Within any institution there are good people and bad people, but we wanted to show the good side.”

More Film

  • ‘Half-Sister’ Director Damjan Kozole on Compassion,

    ‘Half-Sister’ Director Damjan Kozole on Compassion, Learning From the Past

    Two estranged half-siblings from a small coastal town in Slovenia spend the better part of their young lives ignoring each other’s existence. But when circumstances force them to move into the same cramped apartment, they have no choice but to come to terms with the past that binds them, while trying to decide how to [...]

  • The Traitor

    MMC Studios, One of Germany's Biggest Production Facilities, Changes Hands

    Germany’s MMC Studios, which has hosted such recent international productions as Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller “7500” and Marco Bellocchio’s Cannes competition film “The Traitor,” is changing hands. Frankfurt-based investment company Novum Capital has acquired the facility in Cologne, one of Germany’s biggest film and TV studios, from Luxembourg private equity fund Lenbach Equity Opportunities I. The [...]

  • Box Office: 'Annabelle Comes Home' Kicks

    Box Office: 'Annabelle Comes Home' Kicks Off Tuesday With Solid $3.5 Million

    Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Annabelle Comes Home” collected a strong $3.5 million in Tuesday night previews. The supernatural thriller is expected to earn $30 million over its first five days in theaters. “Annabelle Comes Home” is the third “Annabelle” movie and seventh entry in the Conjuring franchise. Preview ticket sales are in line with [...]

  • Naomi Watts Thriller 'The Wolf Hour'

    Naomi Watts Thriller 'The Wolf Hour' Picked Up for U.S. by Brainstorm Media

    “The Wolf Hour,” a psychological thriller starring Naomi Watts and Jennifer Ehle, has been picked up for North America by Brainstorm Media. HanWay Films has also closed sales for a host of European and Asian territories. Directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, “The Wolf Hour” features Oscar-nominated Watts as June, a former countercultural celebrity who lives [...]

  • A Star Is Born

    'A Star Is Born' Soundtrack Surpasses Global Sales of 6 Million

    Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s onscreen chemistry continues to be felt on the official soundtrack to “A Star is Born,” which just surpassed 6 million albums sold globally and has been certified double platinum in the U.S. Released by Interscope Records in 2018, the album debuted atop the charts and remains the highest-selling album of [...]

  • monty-python-are-fifty-in-2019

    Previously Unreleased Monty Python Audio to Get Airing for Troupe's 50th Anniversary

    Michael Palin will exec-produce series of radio specials containing never-before-released audio from Monty Python as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the iconic comedy troupe. They will play on the BBC in the U.K. and then go out in the U.S. Palin and his fellow Pythons – John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry [...]

  • The Eight Hundred (The 800)

    Huayi Brothers' Stock Falls 8% After 'The Eight Hundred' Cancellation

    Huayi Brothers’ stock fell by more than 8% on Wednesday, the day after the veteran Chinese studio announced that its new war epic, “The Eight Hundred,” will not hit Chinese theaters as scheduled next week. Shares dropped from RMB5.48 to RMB5.02 overnight after Huayi said Tuesday that its summer blockbuster’s theatrical debut would be indefinitely [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content