Magazine article The New Yorker

The Business-Movie Business

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Business-Movie Business

Article excerpt

When Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" came out, in 1987, the movie's portrait of American finance as an exhilaratingly cutthroat world ruled by corrupt traders and amoral money managers left an instant and indelible impression. But when Stone's follow-up, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," appeared, two weeks ago, its picture of greedy and soulless financiers seemed a bit, well, old. In the years since the first film, the villainous businessman has become a Hollywood commonplace. As the journalist Edward Jay Epstein puts it, businessmen are now part of Hollywood's "axis of evil." In thrillers like "Edge of Darkness," the recent remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," and the newer Bond films, they're convenient bad guys, playing the roles once occupied by Nazis, Russians, or tinpot dictators. And in films more explicitly about corporate wickedness, like "Michael Clayton" and "The Constant Gardener," they are portrayed as willing to do just about anything to protect the bottom line. Theft, bribery, murder: that's what passes for ordinary business practice onscreen these days. It's enough to make Gordon Gekko look quaint.

Movies' mistrust of capitalism is almost as old as the medium itself. One of D. W. Griffith's early films, a one-reeler called "A Corner in Wheat" (1909), tells the story of a villainous speculator who grabs control of the entire wheat market, sending bread prices out of reach of the beleaguered poor; when they try to protest, they are beaten by cops. (He eventually meets poetic justice, suffocating in a pile of grain.) But for much of Hollywood's history depictions of business followed economic circumstances. During the Depression, bankers were natural targets of scorn. "Baby Face" painted a bleak picture of what was required to climb the corporate ladder. "Skyscraper Souls"--a kind of "Wall Street" of its day--told the story of a man who wrests control of a skyscraper (apparently, a fictionalized Empire State Building) by manipulating the stock of his company, thus bankrupting small investors and driving his former partner to suicide. But in the postwar years, as the U.S. economy boomed, there was a decided transformation in the cinematic representation of business, with movies like "Executive Suite," "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," and the now little seen "Patterns" offering surprisingly nuanced pictures of life in large corporations. These films were critical of the confining quality of corporate life, but they weren't dismissive of it: they belong to an era when Charles Wilson could say that "what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa," and not be laughed at.

By the seventies, Vietnam, environmentalism, and economic stagnation had led to a sharp backlash against corporate America. As one study of the era puts it, the rich were increasingly portrayed as "not only greedy but often violent and malevolent tyrants. …

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