Businessmen are always the villains

SOME of the most memorable scenes in films have revolved around money. Think of Michael Douglas declaring “Greed is good” in “Wall Street”, Leonardo DiCaprio’s share scams in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and, most memorably, Jimmy Stewart’s desperate attempts to save his local bank in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (pictured).

That Hollywood’s portrayal of finance tends towards the caricature is hardly surprising; its portrayal of most things tends towards the caricature. A realistic depiction of a day on a bank-trading desk, or the life of the typical fund manager, would not make for gripping viewing.

A more pertinent criticism is that Hollywood’s approach towards finance, indeed towards capitalism in general, is almost relentlessly negative. Stewart’s banker may be the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but his heroism stems from his opposition to the rapacious Mr Potter. In “Trading Places”, we applaud when Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd make a killing in the orange-juice futures market, but only because the result is the ruin of the villainous Duke brothers.

Generally, the role of businessmen and financiers in films is as pantomime villains, ruthlessly pursuing profit at the expense of human life. In “The Poseidon Adventure”, the actor Fred Sadoff, playing the shipowner’s representative, forces the captain to proceed at full speed without taking on extra ballast so the ship can meet its deadline; the result is that the ship capsizes when hit by a tidal wave. In “Rollerball”, the public’s hero-worship of James Caan’s sports star poses a threat to the power of the corporate elite, who scheme to have him killed. In “The Constant Gardener”, an activist played by Rachel Weisz is killed by the pharmaceutical company whose dangerous drug-testing she is trying to expose.

Even where the central character is involved in finance or business, the standard film plot has the protagonist learn that monetary rewards pale when compared with the simple pleasures of life. Richard Gere’s corporate raider is softened by Julia Roberts (playing a classic “tart-with-a-heart”) in “Pretty Woman”; as “Citizen Kane” Orson Welles dies alone, in a vast stately home full of the trophies of success, still pining for the sled that represented the happiness of his childhood. The new film “Steve Jobs”, about the late head of Apple, depicts the tech guru as an emotionally warped man who spent far too much time fixated on the wrong things, such as computers, instead of his daughter. Despite his remarkable success and genius for innovation, the man is redeemed only when he finally recognises that the most important job of all may be to be a dad.

Perhaps the classic example of this trait occurs in “The Social Network”, which implies that Mark Zuckerberg (as played by Jesse Eisenberg) created Facebook merely to impress an ex-girlfriend; at the end of the film, he repeatedly presses “refresh” in the hopes that she has “friended” him on the site.

That said, “The Social Network” is blessed by a literate script (from Aaron Sorkin, who also penned “Steve Jobs”), and it provides a reasonably realistic portrayal of the trials and tribulations of founding a business. Yet entrepreneurs are rarely presented in a sympathetic light. An exception was “Tucker: The Man and his Dream”, a Francis Ford Coppola biopic about a car designer, played by Jeff Bridges; but even in this film (a box-office flop), the designer’s hopes were crushed by the giant auto companies.

There is an irony in the trumpeting of an anti-business and anti-capitalist message by highly paid film actors and directors, working for multinational media corporations, and selling tickets to consumers guzzling their Coca-Colas in cinema multiplexes. Even “The Lego Movie”, a film essentially devoted to selling plastic bricks to small children, has a character called “Lord Business” as its chief villain.

If fictional films are bound to exaggerate reality, what about the wide range of documentaries that have concentrated on the financial sector? Some of these are powerful. Anyone who watched “Inside Job”, about the 2008 debt crisis, will recall the discomfort of academics and consultants quizzed about their perceived conflict of interest.

Documentaries can treat a subject in much greater depth than a Hollywood drama.  But they exist to make a case. Perhaps that is because the process of producing (and particularly funding) a documentary is so difficult that only those with a passion for a cause will get involved. Audiences are also likely to find a polemic more compelling.

A good example could be found at a recent festival of films about finance at London’s Barbican. “Life and Debt”, a 2001 documentary about Jamaica’s debt problems, and the country’s reform programme from the IMF, was clearly designed to make viewers angry about the way Jamaica was treated. The country’s still-parlous economy certainly indicates the programme was not a success. But this was not a balanced analysis. Stanley Fischer (then of the IMF, now at the Federal Reserve) was included as a talking head, but the film was cut so as to portray him as a smug bureaucrat who ignored reality. The film’s narration also seemed to treat tourists as rich-world party-goers, oblivious to the nation’s poverty, rather than as a vital source of income for the island’s economy.

Alas, negative portrayals of finance, and of capitalism in general, are here to stay. Popular narratives often demand a hero or a villain, and film-makers clearly find it an easier sell to present businessman in negative roles. Audiences will continue to lap up this message, before driving away in their privately produced cars to their privately owned homes, fondly believing, at least for a few minutes, that they are not part of “the system”.