×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”)

Popular on Variety

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

  • The Irishman

    'Captain Marvel,' 'The Irishman,' Other Original Scores to Miss Out on Oscar Nominations

    The Regina Spektor song from “Bombshell” and at least six major scores including “The Two Popes” and “The Irishman” won’t be on Oscar’s music shortlists when they are announced next week. That’s because none of them are on the official Academy eligibility lists from which music-branch members are now voting. Preliminary voting ends tomorrow afternoon, [...]

  • Golden Globes Zodiac signs

    Golden Globes Nominees as Zodiac Signs

    The Golden Globes nominees aren’t the only stars of awards season. Variety turned to astrology to assign Zodiac signs to this year’s nominees. Some selections required a little more nuance — Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” is a Virgo with a prominent Sagittarius rising and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a Sagittarius that wishes it were a [...]

  • Two-time Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks portrays one

    How Production Designer Jade Healy Recreated the Beautiful Neighborhood of Mister Rogers

    Production designer Jade Healy is doing double duty this awards season. For one, her work can be seen in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” There, she created a world of angst and individuality, making use of negative space as a couple reaches the end of their relationship. In Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” [...]

  • Eddie Murphy Awkwafina

    The Golden Globes Polish Up Their New Respectability (Column)

    It’s always a fun ritual to peruse the nominations for the Golden Globes, because you’re probably going to see a handful of eyebrow-raisers and maybe a jaw-dropper, the sort of “Oh, did they actually do that?” choices that make the Golden Globes the Golden Globes. That’s the theory, at any rate. But it may be [...]

  • Greta Gerwig Lulu Wang Ava DuVernay

    Hollywood Responds to Golden Globes Female Director Snub: 'Advertisers Should Weigh In'

    Snubs and surprises are par for the course when it comes to award show nominations, but outrage over the shut-out of women in the best director category for the 2020 Golden Globes is proving considerable. Women nominees and Hollywood gender equity watchdogs have expressed disappointment and anger over the exclusion of at least four women [...]

  • Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is

    Golden Globes: Six Things to Know About the Film Nominations

    Most of Monday morning’s Globe nominations didn’t come as a big surprise. “Marriage Story,” “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Parasite” have been ruling awards season – their many nominations were expected. But Globe wins don’t necessarily translate to Oscar gold — about half of best pic wins have been in sync [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content