Wall Street, the Catholic Church, society, the government and the family. This year, the director nominees wrestled with institutions in crisis. Looked at together, the directors of “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant,” “Room” and “Spotlight” confront where our culture is at: broken families, broken systems, broken hearts.
The financial crisis comes home In “The Big Short” when a group of savvy men bet against the banks’ subprime mortgages, and win in a Pyrrhic victory that signals a tremendous loss for Americans in general.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” reboots the franchise by transforming a race for survival into a rebellion against an exploitive totalitarian regime.
In “The Revenant,” a man’s desire to return home pits him against the cruelest elements of nature and humanity.
“Room” shows that the love between a mother and a son can survive imprisonment and find a way to heal upon liberation and the media’s glare.
And “Spotlight” presents a battle between the Catholic Church and investigative print journalism when priests abuse children under a cloak of superior-sanctioned secrecy.
These institutions don’t exist in isolation, according to “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” McCarthy says. “For any of these institutional evils to exist there has to be deference and complicity, a lot of very good people allowing a crime, whether spiritual or financial.”
“The Big Short” director Adam McKay tied the subprime mortgage crisis to a larger issue that has been erupting on the presidential campaign trail.
“In the last 30 years we’ve seen unprecedented amounts of money funneled into our political process,” he says. “This has created a level of corruption which, although sometimes considered legal, is still dangerous to our democracy, our society and our economic well-being. I felt that this was a story that was important to tell so that working people could maybe have a better understanding of the problems facing us.”
While McKay plumbed recent events, George Miller’s “Fury Road” imagines a dystopian future in political crisis.
“It’s a neo-medieval time where everything is much more elemental,” Miller says. “You have, as always seemed to be the case in history, a citadel, usually high up, usually controlled by power invested in the few over the many. They control the most essential resources — in this case, water — distributed capriciously by the villain Immortan Joe, and supported by military might and coercive religious beliefs serving political interests.”
Last year’s directing Oscar winner, Alejandro G. Inarritu, looked to the past for insight into man’s relationship with nature in his frontier wilderness death match “The Revenant,” a movie that could not be more different from his Academy Award-winning “Birdman.”
“The relation that was established with nature at that time, without any consideration or acknowledgement of its finitude or fragile ecosystem, still prevails today,” he says of “The Revenant.” “The profit at any cost and the pain it inflicted in animals and societies hasn’t changed that much in today’s world even when we now have the science and knowledge to change culture, systems or habits.”
“Room” director Lenny Abrahamson shows healthy skepticism.
“In any movie that deals truthfully with people’s lives there’ll be resonances of the kind you’re talking about, insights into the institutions and social structures that those lives move inside,” he says. “But these things are never my primary focus. I’m always more interested in the quality of the experience the film allows. How close it brings an audience to characters. I wanted ‘Room’ to feel like a real, tender and deep encounter with Ma and Jack. Everything we did was aimed at creating the thinnest possible membrane between the audience and these — to me, real — people. So, yes, there’s a lot about the family, about what it is to grow up in the America of today, about the way the media works, but I don’t think any of this would have the power it does if we didn’t, in some really fundamental way, believe in the people on the screen (and) believe that they have an independent life and are not ciphers being manipulated to make some point.”
These directors also addressed the current diversity crisis confronting the institution of Hollywood and how that, too, represents in microcosmic fashion various shortcomings in the world.
“Every institution is man-made and therefore prone to human error and weakness,” McCarthy says. “As a part of a big and diverse artistic Hollywood community we have to ask ourselves: What can we do to improve this situation?”
“All of the massive institutions in our country need to change faster than they are,” McKay says. “Inclusion, adaptation and truth are essential for the arts and even for business. Any institution refusing to adapt can quickly find itself irrelevant. Hollywood has always changed. Sometimes, it’s just slow. Let’s hope we see more diverse movies, diverse stories for race, gender and sexual orientation in the future.”