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Once upon a time, the only thing film fans knew about the bond market regarded a chap called James. This Bond regularly dominated the news, encouraged mass investment and caused worldwide excitement. Whenever there was a new Bond issue – of Connery, Moore or Brosnan – it stirred up the newspapers as well as the cash registers.
How things have changed. Even with Daniel Craig enlivening the 007 brand, the word “bond” now needs no capital B. Indeed, the joined concepts of “bond” and “lack of capital” are exactly what make headlines: a credit-crunched world in mortal peril, money changers fleeing temples, all of us in a tailspin without the interference of Smersh or Goldfinger.
The latest wave of finance-world films – including Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Company Men, Inside Job and The Social Network – all began shooting in 2009. Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, collapsed in September 2008. Do the maths. Even if some of these films were then gleams in Hollywood’s eye, the cry of “action” would only have been hastened by events.
With the globe’s horizons still streaked in red ink – and possibly getting redder – the odds are that there will be more such movies. The newest is Margin Call. Depicting three days in the life of a Lehman-style bank, Hollywood’s latest audit of the meltdown suggests little has changed. The patient is no better, he still excites shock, awe and pity. More importantly, he excites screenwriters and directors – Margin Call’s J.C. Chandor makes his debut in both jobs – to present the boardroom and brokerage corridors, once so heedless and bountiful, as places fit for a modern Greek tragedy (a description Greece itself, of course, now lives up to).
Star casts are fixtures in these films. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps saw the return of Michael Douglas and The Company Men features Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner. Margin Call is awash with names. Kevin Spacey, the best in the business for business roles and a graduate of Glengarry Glen Ross (David Mamet’s seminal drama-satire about sales firm practices), plays a sales manager trying to survive a downsizing storm. Chief executive Jeremy Irons and “head of risk” Demi Moore are among the winners and losers.
The business movie is today’s version of the 1970s disaster film, less physical but no less apocalyptic. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno had star casts to help us keep tabs on a plenitude of characters. The complexity of modern money doings, which can undo an entire company, country or the world, also needs a big dramatis personae and the hi-fi cast to play them.
Now, a physical cataclysm is not required. Bonds will do for bombs; hedge-fund crises are as threatening as hurricanes. Tragedy has become microcosmic. The beating of a butterfly’s wing in Wall Street, Tokyo or London’s Square Mile is as momentous as the destruction of a street or a city.
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Yet for all its modern obsession with the money world, one could argue that cinema still has not found the subject’s full dramatic measure. The ground troops have moved in, but the main campaign may well lie ahead. Compare the history of the Vietnam war movie. It took a decade or more – filled with the honourable grunts and squaddies of Hollywood action cinema fighting on the level plains of gung-ho – before the defining epics, raised up by mythic or tragic vision, arrived. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now were released in successive years. Seven years later and a year before Wall Street (as if opening the door from one US zeitgeist to another), Oliver Stone made Platoon (1986).
If there is much more momentous tribulation in financial trauma wards currently – and there surely will be – we should expect movies of equivalent stature: the kind that stand above the fray while also lending it new power built on myth or metaphor.
Right now we are in a phase where we try to see humanity in man’s inhumanity. If Michael Douglas as Gordon “greed-is-good” Gekko in the first Wall Street defined a titanic antihero for the 1980s, the post-meltdown baddies and goodies are subtly different. Or differently subtle. Gekko himself, in the second Wall Street, is a mixture of old bluster and new penitence, who ends by investing his money, through only partly selfish motives, in a more far-seeing world. (“Green is good”?)
The title characters in The Company Men, executives made redundant by a failing Boston firm, are victims not of evil super-bosses but of life and the unpredictable spasms of lucre. As in the Wall Street sequel, there is an underlying belief that everyone should get back to doing honest, simple, socially responsible work – a Voltairean injunction to “cultiver nos jardins” – which explains why fired executive Ben Affleck takes a job with Kevin Costner, his salt-of-the-earth builder brother.
Even The Social Network, while endowing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with an unflattering mixture of gauche egotism and go-getting ruthlessness, seeks to find the human being behind the uber-geek. The film enjoys – in an acerbic yet forgiving way – the irony of a hero with minimal social skills creating a website for world togetherness.
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Melodrama, plain and purple, is not today’s preference. There are too many colours, we have been schooled to believe, and many of these overlap. It is too easy to blame the old villains, so Hollywood leaves that to the documentaries. Non-fiction films such as Inside Job and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer have begun to seem – paradoxically – more black-and-white than fictional dramas.
Sometimes current business fiction on screen goes back in time to find those bold colours. Mad Men, the hit television series, is set in the 1960s, but who is counting? This backstabbing, rival-knifing drama set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency seems a lot like the present day, with yesterday’s gloss and visual styling. The swing of the redundancy axe is ever threatening. Financial losses and the menace of bankruptcy are up there, for dramatic value, with love, sex and fatal illness.
The great leap backwards does not always work. Last year, that prophetess of capitalism, Ayn Rand, almost saw – from her cloudy eminence in the afterlife – her novel Atlas Shrugged brought to the big screen. Part one of a proposed three-part adaptation hiccupped into movie theatres in April. For critics and audiences it was simultaneously too little and too much. Rand’s vision of an unconstrained laissez-faire Utopia seemed as challengingly batty as ever. Yet the film was under-cast, under-directed and under-powered.
We await, even so, a film about capitalist downfall that has the mytho-manic reach and grandeur of Rand’s storytelling. Perhaps we require an upside-down or reconfigured Fountainhead. In my view, we need – as the story of the Vietnam war needed Cimino, Coppola and Stone – an artist unafraid to lend the fall of Mammon something as reverberant as the fall of Adam (and I do not mean Smith).
Too many modern money movies recycle the same meltdown meteorology. Stocks tumble; the braces are stretched; the juniors are fired; the seniors quake; the Kevin Spacey/Michael Douglas character gets to make his climactic speech about greed being good, bad, redemptive, iniquitous, complicated, simple, or any combination of the above.
Come on, Hollywood. There is a world falling apart out there. Atlas has indeed shrugged. The ongoing, long-lasting world money crisis is threatening all our lives, sending cracks and fissures into each corner. It is not just about suits in skyscrapers. How many other crises in our times, wars apart, have had such an effect? Let us get that vision up and running. Let us get the picture world’s prophetic powers pumped, primed and unafraid of the big statement: poetic, political or apocalyptic.