ROLAND EMMERICH is known for making the kind of disaster movies that fans of quality filmmaking—the kind with literate scripts, acting that’s not just phoning it in for a Mulholland Drive mortgage payment, and values that approach the humane—love to hate. His films also garner massive audiences. Ask yourself what you were doing on the weekends that Independence Day and Godzilla were released and you may know why.
But look beneath the surface and there’s a more thoughtful sensibility at work. The Day After Tomorrow engaged climate change without easy solutions, and 2012 proposed that salvation for the U.S. will only come from accepting its interdependence with other nations. Emmerich is German, and it’s obvious that his outsider status permits him to raise an eyebrow at cinematic U.S. imperialism.
It’s refreshing to see him turn the eye beneath that brow to a European story in Anonymous, a fantasy that purports to be about whether or not Shakespeare really wrote his plays. Emmerich is having smart fun and so are we. The film takes the debatable authorship theory at face value, so don’t expect a credible laying out of the evidence. What you get instead is a fascinating hybrid movie: a cloak-and-dagger-historical fiction-Greek tragedy-inspirational comedy about how storytellers can change society. It’s bombastic and implausible and full of bad Elizabethan teeth and people who would only say “thou” and “thee” given half the chance. But in its imagining of the power of art to create a new way of thinking about the world, Anonymous ends up being the inversion of the disaster movie: It’s a glorious—if slightly ridiculous—evocation of the artist’s vocation to tell the truth whatever it costs.
Costs are also at the dark heart of Margin Call, the first whole dramatic treatment of the roots of the 2008 economic crisis. Powerhouse actors including Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey, and Zachary Quinto portray the process by which one investment firm could both save itself and destroy everyone else by lying about the value of its holdings and selling them before the word gets out. What’s most disturbing about this film is not the amorality of its protagonists—we’ve been used to demonized caricatures of Wall Street since Michael Douglas made “greed is good” a mantra. It’s the speed with which the decisions are made that will have Emmerich-esque consequences for the rest of the world. Margin Call’s clear focus on a bunch of individuals sitting round a board room table at 2 a.m., playing dice with the lives of others, is the most striking cinematic representation yet of a theme also found in Anonymous: how power becomes concentrated in the hands of far too few. In this sense, while these two films are set in worlds that are unreachable to most of us, they force us to ask questions that have to be faced, right here, right now.
Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.