by Matt McKenna
A Most Violent Year is a disappointing movie. The performances are good, the cinematography is beautiful, but the film adds up to a lot of nothing. For all the pregnant pauses, for all the threats of violence, and for all the moral conundrums the characters confront, nothing ever… happens. By the time the credits roll, a deus ex machina has ensured that absolutely no lessons are learned nor are any characters fundamentally changed, and the audience is left to wonder why it spent the last two hours watching these characters mill about. The same can be said about the recent hullabaloo involving Hillary Clinton and her use of a personal email account while serving as Secretary of State. What initially appeared to be a juicy political scandal involving Clinton withholding documents from the State Department ended up being, like A Most Violent Year, a major letdown. “Emailgate” therefore has the dubious distinction of being the first non-scandal scandal of the 2016 Presidential election cycle. Even though both A Most Violent Year and emailgate have interesting premises, the execution of each story evades their respective interesting parts and wastes their potential.
A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Issacs in the role of Abel Morales, the eye-rollingly honest owner of Standard Oil who attempts to run his business on the up-and-up despite the moral bankruptcy of his corrupt industry. Standard Oil's competitors don't appreciate Morales' success, however, and decide to intimidate him by hijacking his company's trucks and beating the drivers without mercy. There's an interesting story to be told under this premise, perhaps one that shows how Morales must figure out how to keep his employees safe in an environment where being on the right side of the law is both a business risk for himself and a health risk for his employees. But that is not what the film is about. Instead, the film's primary conflict centers around Morales' difficulties in securing a bank loan to buy a fuel oil terminal and obtain dominance in the industry. The safety of his drivers is only relevant to the plot insofar as that if the drivers start carrying weapons and engage their attackers in armed conflict, Morales' bank might back out of the loan. In terms of drama, this poses a problem: it's hard to care about the truck drivers' safety because the protagonist doesn't care about it. At the same time, it's hard to care about Morales' struggle to secure a loan and buy an oil terminal because–come on–it's a loan to buy an oil terminal.
Back in reality, we have emailgate, a scandal that suggests perhaps Hillary Clinton withheld documents from the State Department. Because Clinton's emails were hosted on her own personal email server, it's possible she concealed damning correspondence that should have been subject to federal disclosure laws. Like A Most Violent Year, the premise of this story is compelling–after all, who knew our elected officials were allowed to contact foreign leaders with the same email account they use to forward cat GIFs to their friends? But, of course, this isn't what the scandal is about. Since it turns out that both Democrats and Republicans in government have been using personal email servers for a long time, it is not to the Republicans' advantage to complain about Clinton's use of one. Instead, they have pivoted the scandal to have something to do with the 2012 Benghazi attacks. And now we find ourselves in an A Most Violent Year situation in which the real story has been overshadowed by a supremely boring, unrelated, and dead-end tangent. Where A Most Violent Year glossed over the truck driver assaults in favor of a monotonous story about Morales getting a loan, the emailgate scandal has glossed over our country's bizarre IT policies in favor of beating the already pulverized horse of the alleged cover-up of the Benghazi attacks.
The frustrating thing about both A Most Violent Year and emailgate is that there was promise in the premise of the movie and the scandal. For the movie, all the ingredients for a compelling good-guy-in-a-bad-situation drama were present: great production, fine acting, and a no-win situation for the protagonist. But the movie that was made was not the movie that could take advantage of these ingredients. Similarly, emailgate could have started a conversation about how American citizens should be able to keep track of what our elected officials do in our name, but instead what we got was a hackneyed attempt to score some early election points. Alas, considering we are about to begin our descent into another drawn out Presidential election cycle filled with outrage, scandals, and gaffes, it probably makes sense to just get used to it.