Tis the season for righteous indignation.
At the megaplex, anyway.
This lead-up to the holidays and the Oscar race is packed with movies in which brave individuals take on institutional injustice.
All of these releases are period pieces (their time frames range from the early 20th century to the economic meltdown of 2008) and set up liberal-vs.-conservative battle lines.
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All are calculated to get their audiences fighting mad over conditions in the “bad old days.” And in doing so they may offer perspectives on economic/political/cultural issues convulsing American society at this very moment.
Among these irate entertainments:
▪ “Spotlight”: In Tom McCarthy’s superb journalism procedural, staff members of The Boston Globe (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber) buck one of their city’s most powerful institutions — the Roman Catholic Church — to expose a system that for decades shuffled pedophile priests from one unsuspecting congregation to the next.
It’s like “All the President’s Men” with crucifixes. (Currently in theaters.)
▪ “Suffragette”: The struggle of British women for the right to vote is embodied in the experiences of a London laundress and mother (Carey Mulligan) who becomes a bomb-throwing radical when peaceful protest fails to make a dent in the testosterone-saturated power structure.
Largely an all-women effort (Sarah Gavron directs, Abi Morgan wrote the screenplay, and the supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep), “Suffragette” might be viewed as this year’s “Selma,” complete with police baton-bashing and prison terms for protesters.
Except that this oppressed minority represents half the human race. (Currently in theaters.)
▪ “Trumbo”: Bryan Cranston plays arrogant, egotistical Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and Communist Party member. With the rest of the “Hollywood Ten,” Trumbo was convicted of contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Jay Roach’s film concentrates mostly on the decade after Trumbo completed a one-year prison sentence. During this time the writer defied the Hollywood blacklist by selling his work under false names. Two of his screenplays — for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One” — won Oscars, though Trumbo could not acknowledge that he was their author.
Given that we’re in the midst of a presidential race, this film’s timing could hardly be better. (Currently in theaters.)
▪ “The Big Short”: Critics haven’t yet gotten a look at Adam McKay’s seriocomic take on the 2008 housing bubble collapse. But the killer cast certainly looks promising: Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Steve Carell, Melissa Leo.
Moreover, this tale of outsiders who figured out the housing market’s shell game and successfully bet against Wall Street seems timed to remind us — just when things were getting back to normal — of how we’re just a regulation or two away from relaunching the whole messy cycle. (Opening in December in Kansas City.)
▪ “Labyrinth of Lies”: Set in the late 1950s and early ’60s, this German release follows a fictional young prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) on a seemingly hopeless quest to ferret out and bring to trial Nazi war criminals.
He does so while facing the indifference and hostility of his government and the German public. Many of his friends and colleagues are happily ignorant of Nazi atrocities. As far as they are concerned, it’s fine if war criminals came home, hung up their uniforms and carried on as if nothing had happened. (Recently ended a theatrical run; available on DVD in January.)
David-vs.-Goliath tales have always been favored by Hollywood. But when so many similarly themed films hit the screens within a limited time frame, you have to wonder. What gives? It’s not like the heads of the various studios had a big meeting and agreed that in the fall of 2015 they’d unleash a barrage of anti-establishment titles.
Maybe filmmakers are picking up on something in the national zeitgeist. At the very least they recognize (if only subconsciously) that 2016 is an election year — perhaps this is their contribution to the debate.
No matter how this all came to be, these films share a theme that is hardly limited to a single historic era. They’re about the quest for truth, justice and equality in the face of widespread fear, indifference and/or narrow self-interest.
That’s pretty much a never-ending battle.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler's reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.