Do we live in a 'Big Short' or 'Spotlight' world?

2016 Oscar nominations announced
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Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Two of this year's Oscar nominees for best picture perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the 2016 campaign
  • Is the system bankrupt? Or can it be fixed? Those are the questions these films pose

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Two of this year's Oscar nominees for best picture perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the 2016 campaign: "The Big Short" and "Spotlight."

As Democratic and Republican voters start deciding who their nominee should be for the election, they would do well to see these films and think about what kind of message they want to send to the nation: a pessimistic message that everything is broken or an optimistic one that reform is possible.
It is not a surprise that voters face such stark choices. Even with the positive news that President Obama shared with the country in the State of the Union, there are many huge challenges still facing the United States and the rest of the world.
    The threat of ISIS, though often exaggerated for political gain, remains frightening to anyone who watched the carnage they caused in Paris or inspired in San Bernardino.
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    Overseas, the continual aggression displayed by Russia and Iran stir concern in the electorate about how the leaders of these countries could cause turmoil in their respective regions of the world.
    The U.S. economy is certainly in much better condition than it was in 2008, but things aren't great for many Americans. A large number of people have given up looking for jobs altogether while others string together two or three jobs at a time just to make ends meet.
    The environment keeps deteriorating as we keep polluting. There have been horrendous instances of police violence against African-Americans that have stimulated a new generation of civil rights activists who are calling for criminal justice reform, thus far with limited success. On other than a few exceptions, government seems gridlocked as private money and lobbyists dominate politics.
    How do these films speak to our political concerns? Some of the candidates in the campaign subscribe to the cynical message in "The Big Short," the film staring Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling that recounts how broken the financial system had become before the meltdown of 2008.
    Investors had made billions of dollars based on exploitative practices that included loans to homebuyers who couldn't afford them.
    Through an unusual series of tutorials, including the actress Margot Robbie sitting in a bubble bath explaining some of the basics of finance, the film explains to moviegoers how this destructive system came to be and suggests that after the bottom fell out nobody really reformed the system.
    There are no heroes in this movie, however. Even the main protagonists are not people who reform finance, even as they are the first to learn how corrupt the system was, but rather people who make a bet that it will collapse and earn fortunes when they do. This bleak film paints a picture of doom and gloom where repair is impossible.
    There are a number of candidates who have championed this view of the future. Among the Republicans, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have led the way.
    America is a "hellhole," Trump has told his audiences. During the debate Thursday he said he was happy to accept the "mantle of anger." The United States of America, Carson has said, "is the patient, and the patient is in critical condition."
    In their view, terrorist forces are winning control over large swaths of territory, the U.S. economy is losing in the race against all of its major competitors and the moral fabric of the country has come undone. Refugees are flooding into the country with noxious plans in mind. America isn't great anymore.
    He and Cruz paint a frightening picture of what has happened, as was evident with Trump's first major television ad.
    They play to the worst fears of the electorate -- every refugee is a potential terrorist, every job number from the White House is fake -- as they claim that the only solution is scream, fight, and to fundamentally change our entire political system.
    Although very different in its tone and vision, Bernie Sanders, who has been introduced with Steve Earle's song "The Revolution Starts Now," appeals to some of these same instincts, though from a leftward perspective. His campaign points to the total corruption of the existing political process as a result of money and big interests. He calls for a revolution that in his mind is necessary if there is ever to be substantive change.
    Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" conveys a very different message about the possibilities of reform. In this brilliant film, starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and others, we also learn about a system that had become totally corrupt.
    The movie looks back at the Catholic Church scandals in the 1990s and before when some priests were sexually abusing boys in Boston. The movie depicts the way in which almost every institution in the city was complicit in allowing for the sexual abuse to continue.
    Nobody wanted to say anything or admit what was going on given the huge role that this religious institution played in the city's life.
    The difference with "The Big Short" is that there are heroes in this movie, a team of brave reporters working for the investigative unit of The Boston Globe who uncover and report on the scandal. Even though the film shows that it took too long to get to this story, they do. There are spaces in this story for figures who can and do make the nation become better.
    This is also a message that has resonance on the campaign trail. Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton has consistently been a champion of reform. She has boasted of her extensive record in government, and her career as a "fighter," to highlight how she would be the president who would roll up her sleeves, get her hands dirty and actually solve problems.
    In contrast to her opponents, Clinton claims to have a clear-eyed view of how politics actually works and the political differences in the nation. As she did when she was in the Senate, Clinton has argued, she would work as president to find viable solutions, even if limited, to the nation's problems.
    Some Republicans have offered the same kind of approach, with less success. Jeb Bush and, to some extent, Marco Rubio have each offered a more optimistic vision of governance by pointing to his own background as proof.
    "Ours is the story of 230-some-odd years," Rubio explains, "of perpetual improvement, of a nation where each generation did what they needed to do to leave the next better off."
    In his State of the State address, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also pushed back against his Republican opponents through his record of working within the state to address problems. "Instead of slick sound bites," the governor said, "we've governed through hard conversations . . . Instead of going for quick fixes or the easy solutions, we've gone for hard solutions and a long-term revolution in the way we run our state. This is what it means to be a governor; to be a real leader. It's the difference between talking a big game and attacking problems head-on and being responsible for achieving solutions."
    Is the system bankrupt or can it be fixed?
    Two movies put this question on the table through dramatic interpretations of real world events. Now voters in both parties need to decide what their answer is and who the best person would be to champion their view.