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

Best Screenplay Oscar Race
Marly Gallardo for Variety

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.”