I Disagree with Robert McKee

Robert McKee is well known for his seminars to screenwriter wannabes. He presents a model of an exciting or suspenseful screenplay and encourages his audience to apply it to their own story ideas. Though I have no aspirations of becoming a screenwriter, I recently took his introductory seminar.

McKee sends out blast emails to the seminar’s alumni, promoting his latest offerings and including “works/doesn’t work” film reviews. His most recent reviews are of Spotlight and The Big Short, both of which I, too, have recently written about.

McKee gives Spotlight an “almost works” for several reasons. He feels it lacks “character complexity and in-depth exploration of the inner and moral contradictions that caused the scandal in the first place.” Also, he thinks “nothing of value to the world would have been lost” if the protagonists – the Spotlight reporting team at the Boston Globe – had not achieved their objective because Boston Herald journalists would have gotten the story.

I disagree on both counts. I think the movie did look deeply into the conflicts the Spotlight team of journalists – all Catholics – felt as they investigated their own church. And it provided insight into the feelings of the other parties: those who were abused, the abusers, and the abuser’s enablers. The Boston Herald is a conservative tabloid. One would have to be dreaming in technicolor to think that it had the resources to support investigative reporting or the intellectual independence to take on the Archdiocese of Boston.

McKee gives The Big Short an “it works.” I agree with his assessment that the movie includes “good action” in terms of “financial derring do,” effective exposition of the nature of financial instruments, and that the shorts are “morally complex, empathetic characters.” What McKee didn’t address is that the movie tried to do more than that, by showing that the duel between shorts and longs had the ultimate societal implication of bringing on the Great Recession and its subsequent suffering. Where film critics have differed with one another is in their assessments of whether the movie did this effectively. Some claim that the movie identified overmuch with the shorts, thereby undercutting its discussion of the implications of their big trades. The Big Short’s supporters have claimed that this was communicated effectively by the end. This question doesn’t seem to have mattered to McKee.

I hope McKee will share his reviews more widely than only with the alumni of his seminars, say on his blog. But, wherever he posts his views, I’ll use my blog to discuss my reaction.

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