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Hollywood Follows the Money: Films of the ‘Great Recession’

In his Academy Award winning performance as the corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas uttered his infamous credo that, “Greed is good.” However, a less widely remembered but an equally revealing Gekko comment was his statement that, “It’s all about the bucks, the rest is conversation.”

Hollywood seems to have followed up on this Gekko maxim in its attempts to provide some notion of what actually caused the “Great Recession.”  Of course, giving dramatic life to credit swaps, derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and how hedge funds operate is a difficult feat. It was clearly much easier to achieve in fine documentaries like Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) made in his trademark style (where he becomes one of the film’s prime subjects) that mixes hard-hitting criticism of capitalism’s evils laced with humor, and Charles Ferguson’s equally angry but more solemn Inside Job (2010) that explores how changes in governmental policies and banking practices helped create the financial crisis.

However, when looking at Hollywood narrative films what you are given are stories that follow the money, but hardly offer any real insight into what caused the terrible financial crisis of 2007-2008.  It was a crisis that left the banking system on the verge of collapse, millions unemployed, caused hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures, and the entire global economy in shambles, or as one of the characters in these films remarks, “the end of the world.”

It was the Great Recession that gave Oliver Stone the opportunity to bring back the character, Gordon Gekko, in his polished Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Unfortunately, except for a couple of mentions of the fictional financial firm of Keller-Zabel being overextended in sub prime mortgages, someone mentioning “moral hazard,” and the images of bankers seated in the glistening wood paneled conference room at the Federal Reserve like the Mafioso capos huddled around the conference table in The Godfather (1972), there isn’t much to go on as to the causes of the Great Recession. What there is a superficial critique of the Street’s predatory practices, and a reference to the Great Recession by a voice over which repeats the mantra that the definition of madness is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,

In this film the charismatic, cynical, arch-manipulator Gekko (Michael Douglas again) returns to the outside world after eight years in prison for corporate malfeasance with barely a penny in his pocket and a cell phone the size of a butternut squash. This is remedied by his publishing a best seller, titled appropriately enough Is Greed Good? and lecturing to eager young audiences of aspiring  moneymakers whom he casually dismisses as the Ninja generation—‘no income, no jobs, no assets.” The gist of his talks is that “money is a bitch that never sleeps.” His talk offers far from a profound analysis of how the market works, but it’s always delivered with flair.

One of those in Gekko’s audience is a hotshot, well-heeled broker, Jake Moore (Shia LeBouf). Jake has a connection to Gekko, since he is living with his estranged daughter Winnie (Carrie Mulligan)—a forgettable character who despises the money culture, writes for a left-leaning blog, and is big on the environment.  Gecko is seemingly desperate to reconnect with her. And Jake, who needs Gekko’s help to take revenge on Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the film’s prime villain, who he blames for the suicide of his aging mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), tries to make peace between Gekko and his daughter.

Unlike Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) in the original Wall Street, who was preoccupied with using any means at his disposal to try to get a piece of the high life, the ambitious Jake may also be enmeshed in the market’s ethos, but given the nature of that world is almost on the side of the angels. His financial specialty is cheap, alterative energy, but the character is too dull to offer a different moral perspective than Gekko’s– a man who has little interest in serving the environment or doing good in any shape or form, and is driven as much by the “game” itself as by the money it produces.

Stone’s direction as always offers bold strokes with little nuance, but is also propulsive and alive. He uses split screens, accelerated motion, montages, and helicopter shots, and strikingly conveys the glow of Manhattan’s moneyed world of luxury apartments overlooking the city’s jewel-like lights, and lavish fundraising banquets at the Met where the camera floats up to show the lighted candles on the tables making them seem like lily pads floating in a dark sea.

Despite the film being ostensibly critical of the ruthless dealings of Wall Street operators, the latter, especially Gekko carry all of the film’s vitality. (We even begin to root for Gekko at the film’s contrived sentimental conclusion.) In a film filled with one-dimensional characters, Gekko is the only one who holds our interest, and his powerful presence ultimately dilutes the film’s critique of Wall Street.

For all their discussion of millions and billions of dollars the characters in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps are practically puritanical compared to the debauched minions of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). In the former the only indulgence is the scene Jake and Bretton race high speed motorcycles though the countryside. In contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street set the tone of the film by opening with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DeCaprio) and his dim-witted cohorts hurling helmet-clad dwarfs at a target in their office.

Some of Martin Scorsese’s past films like Goodfellas(1990), Casino(1994)), and The Departed(2006), centered on the world of gangsters, guns, and violence. In this true story The Wolf of Wall Street  (2013) he replaces them with white-collar criminals who behave like crude, ignorant louts, albeit comic ones with telephones. And their charismatic, master salesman Capo de Tutti Capo is Jordan Belfort—smart, wild, and self-destructive.

In a flashback we see Jordon’s rise, beginning with being mentored by a coked-up broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a virtuoso cameo) who does a thump and grunt exercise while advising him to consume vast amounts of drugs and masturbate to make it on Wall Street. It doesn’t take long for Belfort, whose core of associates are outer-borough ethnics striving for their version of the American Dream to start his own pseudo-white shoe, WASP-sounding operation called Stratton-Oakmont. What it is in reality is a “pump and dump” shop; where brokers urge investors to buy worthless penny stocks; driving the price up, and at a certain point selling to make huge profits. Belfort urges his brokers on, telling them he wants them to be “telephone fucking terrorists,” engaging in verbally coercing their customers to buy the stocks.

However, the film’s emphasis is not on the workings of the market–though Jordon directly talks to the camera informing us that illegality is his company’s governing principle; but on consuming every drug imaginable, buying mansions, yachts and jewelry, and indulging in orgies. Money and its accompanying pleasures are all–and excess and profanity are the rule. Jordan also rips off the working class, and has contempt for people who don’t strive to become rich. His behavior is without restraint, and along with his right hand man the fat, infantile, always high Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill) they offer a sales associate $10,000 dollars to shave her head, cover a prostitute with dollar bills, hire a half naked male marching band, and seem to have prostitutes on call around the clock. In fact, Jordan seems to run the company like the fraternity in Animal House, and garners only love and adulation from his employees.

Scorsese means the film to be funny, and though at times tedious in its depiction of Jordon and his cohort’s dissipation, some of the scenes are touched with genuine black humor. One crucial scene sees the drugged out Jordan crawling to his Lamborghini to try to get home, he sideswipes a number of cars and totals his own, and without ever being conscious that anything has happened. There is something blackly and bleakly comic about these lower middle class guys making so much money that their main goal in life turns out to be getting high.

After being brought down by a solemn, dogged FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) for swindling and money laundering, Jordan gets a reduced sentence for being an informer. After being let out, he goes back to what he knows–giving motivational speeches on salesmanship–without a sign of remorse.

Scorsese doesn’t really attempt to illuminate the crisis of 2008. Stratton-Oakmont is too far down the financial food chain from the Goldman Sachs’s and Morgan Stanley’s to be seen as representative of Wall Street. What is most problematic are that Scorsese’s expert zooms, tracking and bird’s eye shots, montages, and De Caprio’s seductive, animated performance implicitly glamorize this corrupt and callous world. Scorsese may have seen this film as a black comic critique of the money culture run amuck, but portions of the audience identified with and wanted to emulate the hedonistic behavior of Jordan Belfort and his cohort– the odiousness of their actions forgotten in the process.

Belfort’s mentor Hanna makes one comment that sharp comment at the film’s beginning: “Wall Street is a fake, it creates nothing.” It’s echoed by Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), a vice president and co-founder of GTX a shipbuilding and transportation firm in TV veteran director John Wells’s (ER, West Wing) film The Company Men (2011). McClary says that, “We used to build something here.”

However, that has been supplanted by the need, as the CEO of GTX, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) says, to keep the share price high so he can get the maximum profit in a looming merger. In pursuit of that, GTX lays off a whole slew of people, among whom are Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), and ultimately McClary. The responsibility for its employees is subordinated to the bottom line. As Salinger says, “We work for the stockholders now,” and the corporation has become more interested in deal-making and the manipulation of stocks and bonds than in shipbuilding.

Hollywood has dealt with the plight of the laid off middle management executive before in a film like Up in the Air (2009), whose opening montage depicted the rage, confusion and despair of men and women faced with the economic and psychological state that the recession had thrown them into. However, the unemployed are little more than an suggestive device in Up in the Air, before it plunges into its real interest– romantic comedy. In contrast, The Company Men looks directly at the horrific employment market and psychic pain suffered by men whose comfortable world–replete with six figure salaries, stock options, and expensively furnished suburban houses–has been shattered.

The film centers on Bobby’s plight. The product of a modest childhood, he’s become a swaggering, golf playing, Porshe-driving sales executive, who can’t adjust to the fact that he’s no longer a top dog. He has a smart supportive wife and a sensitive son, but he’s angry and wallows in self pity. “I’m a thirty-seven year old, unemployed loser who can’t support his family,” he says, but in truth he pays little attention to anyone beside himself.

As a last resort he does construction work for his salt of the earth brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner). Dolan is a skilled carpenter and a decent man and he and Bobby have an uneasy relationship. High on his prior success, Bobby is condescending toward Jack, and Jack, believing in the dignity and satisfaction of hard work is dryly ironic about the pretensions of an executive milieu he has little use for.

The film also touches on the indignities of seeking new employment: the hundreds of resumes sent without getting any response; seminars where the unemployed are encouraged to futilely shout, “I will win;” or in the case of the up from the factory floor exec Phil Woodward, the advice to color his graying hair, so that he doesn’t get turned down for jobs because of his age. It’s the sense of failure and mounting debts and bills that drives Phil to suicide.

Of course this being Hollywood, the film ends with a wish fantasy that is supposed to leave us with hope. Bobby and a number of downsized employees, are hired back by McClary, who uses part of the outsized bonus he got from his stock options when GTX is bought out, to go back to his beginnings and open a small ship building outfit.

The Company Men is also about the money. At one point McClary confronts Salinger saying that because of all the layoffs Salinger has raked in $22 Million. Salinger responds by telling McClary that because the merger has gone through his stock options are also worth millions.

The most noteworthy of all these films that deal with the Great Recession is J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011). For along with its obsession about money it also captures the psychology of the people on Wall Street on a night during September 2008. A night when an unnamed 107 year old financial services firm must deal with, as one character puts it, “the greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism,” or it will collapse. Discovered by Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) on the very day he is fired after nineteen years with the firm along with 80% of the risk management department. It is revealed when Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young whiz of an analyst who survived the cuts, completes Dale’s work and discloses it to his bosses Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey in the film’s strongest performance).

Until that moment all we know about Emerson and Rogers is that the former chews nicorette gum compulsively and spent $75,000 of his 21/2 million dollar pay and bonuses on hookers, and that Rogers sheds crocodile tears about his sick dog while the bloodletting occurs in his department.

Nonetheless, Emerson and Rogers turn out to be nebulously decent and sympathetic compared to the revulsion that the film inspires for the upper echelons of the company: Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), the callous corporate hatchet man; Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) the ice cold head of the risk management department, who had vaguely warned of the impending crisis; and most chilling of all John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the smooth, elegantly malevolent Chairman of the Board, who helicopters in to try to solve the crisis.

Tuld, whose name seems a combination of John Thain the former CEO of Merrill Lynch, and Richard Fuld the head of Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008, is executive who claims he understands little about numbers tells Sullivan: Speak to me as you would a small child, or a golden retriever.” He is told that if the mortgage-backed securities currently on the company’s books, which are heavily leveraged, decline in value by an additional twenty-five per cent, the company’s losses will be greater than its total assets. Consequently, the answer to the company’s problems lies with dumping their sub-prime derivatives on the market before other firms are aware of their worthlessness. It’s a tactic, which according to Rogers, will undermine any credibility that the company has with other firms and totally destroy the market.

Tuld has no hesitation doing this or turning his executives into scapegoats for the problems of the company. His vision is Darwinian, believing the world is divided into winners and losers, and he wants the company to survive no matter the cost.

His soullessness is echoed, albeit in a minor key, by Peter Sullivan’s buddy Seth Bregman (Peter Badgely), whose sole obsession seems to be how much each of the other characters earns, and the more sensitive Sullivan, who admits he gave up a career, in Tuld’s terms as a “Rocket Scientist,” for the money. The self-pitying Sam Rogers, who displays a touch of conscience when the dumping scheme is proposed, surrenders because, as he says, “I need the money.” The money is the key, and even Eric Dale laments the fact that he once did productive work and built a bridge that saved commuters thousands of hours of time every year, returns to the company when he is threatened with losing his severance and other benefits.

Margin Call is an unredeemable dark portrait of Wall Street—a world based on a life of acquisition where the investors are treated like suckers. Though some of the executives in the film may have a residue of decency they all serve a totally soulless and reckless enterprise dedicated to making money.

Chandor skillfully wraps the film in shadows, and darkness, using NYC ‘s night streets, bars, and strip joints, to convey a world of suspicion and moral blindness. There are also the almost sinister, alienating moments of shots of empty trading rooms lit only by traders’ consoles, and the image of Cohen and Robertson venomously exchanging barbs in an elevator as a cleaning women silently stands between them. They behave as if she’s wasn’t there, a metaphor for work that cares nothing about the human consequences of what they do.

Margin Call comes closest of all these films to giving a real sense of what it was like to be there when the financial crisis of 2008 occurred. But even here we get no real sense of what was behind this economic tsunami. Perhaps for any explanation we must turn to the novels (Le Pere Goriot and Lost Illusions) of one of the first great chroniclers of early capitalism, Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), who once succinctly stated that, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”