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5 inspiring data-driven Hollywood movies

Starring: Data Journalism

Whoever said data journalism can only be learned by reading books is clearly wrong and not watching enough films. Movies are a great source of inspiration about the different ways data can be used without all of the minutiae and number crunching bogging us down.

After reading yet another fantastic post on the NICAR mailing list about the best movies that a professor can use to introduce their students to the world of data, we wanted to create our own list of films and share it with our community. We would like to thank the users who contributed their ideas and inspired us.

We’ve tried our best to keep it spoiler free and cover the most important movies, but if there’s something we have forgotten, let us know.

Get ready to munch on some popcorn!

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Anyone who is even remotely interested in how statistics have shaped the face of franchise sports across the world then you absolutely needs to watch the movie Moneyball. It depicts the rise of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and how their general manager Billy Beane, who is brilliantly portrayed by Brad Pitt, uses data to shape a winning team.

Director Bennett Miller, along with famed screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, adapted Michael Lewis' 2003 nonfiction book of the same name, which is also of note.

It's a good reflection on how, when properly understood, data can influence sports and if used correctly, it can lead to success for a team.


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Spotlight is a riveting story about investigative journalism and a demonstration of the importance of being able to handle large amounts of data in order to expose a scandal.

Directed by Tom McCarthy who also wrote the film with Josh Singer, Spotlight tells the true story of how reporters for the Boston Globe uncovered the sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy. The Globe's team and other reporters covered the abuse crisis with more than 600 articles in 2002 culminating in an incredible amount of work that earned them the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

In this article, one of the journalists involved, Matt Caroll, explains in great detail the necessity of interpreting large numbers and the growth the data journalism field has had since then.

Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci all give outstanding performances. The film won both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in the Academy Awards (2015).


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If you’re looking for a little more entertainment than substance for your data viewing then we recommend the film 21, directed by Robert Luketic.

Based on the story Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, this film follows Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess, a college student who is invited to join the MIT Blackjack Team after impressing his professor with his aptitude for numbers. By boosting their odds of winning at casinos through card counting and undercover signalling, these players rake in huge sums of money while trying to avoid the ruthless casino bosses.

Statistics' persuasiveness is on full display here in true Hollywood fashion, so expect a lot of numbers and equations floating across the screen on top of a montage. Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Laurence Fishburne are some of the actors who prove the power of numbers to make money.

Margin Call

Margin call

You can’t talk about the power of data analysis without mentioning its sway over the economy. For that we have to add J. C. Chandor's film Margin Call, which he wrote and directed. The story provides an explanation of the early stages of the financial crisis that occurred between 2007 and 2008.

The title comes from the economic term describing when an investor has to deposit further to cover any potential losses. The narrative focuses on the actions taken by a group of employees during the subsequent financial collapse.

The film takes a convoluted and messy financial crisis and turns it into a compelling drama with a number of big stars, including, again, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and Demi Moore.


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The opening line of this show immediately sets the tone: "We all use math every day. To predict weather, to tell time, to handle money. Math is more than formulas and equations. It's logic; it's rationality. It's using your mind to solve the biggest mysteries we know."

Doesn't that sum up the whole enterprise of data journalism?

If you like thrillers, you should definitely keep an eye on this series. Numb3rs performs a compelling job of depicting the ways in which statistics assist an FBI team in solving even the most puzzling crimes and murders, and it does so by focusing on a case in each episode. This is binge-worthy material as they have plenty of episodes across six seasons available to enjoy.

Rob Morrow, David Krumholtz, Judd Hirsch, Peter MacNicol, and Alimi Ballard are among the cast members, who are joined by producers Ridley and Thomas Scott.

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