While too fresh on America’s mind to endure the heartbreak of a Bernie Madoff movie, the ugly side of the business world makes great cinematic fodder. Documentaries detailing corrupt corporations or the plight of the American worker, comedies like Office Space and Horrible Bosses that muse on the hell of the inherent business power structure, or dramas that highlight the intense and explicitly soulless actions of businesses worldwide — it is clear that the movie-going public take pleasure in watching business. Daytraders and dilettantes alike should enjoy these ten films that showcase the uglier side of business.
1. Margin Call
Are you that constant complainer that the financial structure of the United States is a sham? Are you reading this list on a smart phone because you’re currently Occupying Wall Street? Get thee to Margin Call. A 2011 limited-release film that will be culturally relevant for years to come, this A-list film follows a set of employees during an intense 36 hours at an unnamed investment bank, set in the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Dialogue-heavy and riddled with drama, Margin Call details a junior risk analyst’s (Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto) late-night discovery that his firm’s current trading patterns will soon exceed historical volatility levels. What follows is an engrossing chain of events and interplay of characters that eventually leads up to an even later-night flooring speech by firm executive John Tuld (the perennially perfect Jeremy Irons), and the next morning’s inevitable asset fire sale. A truly great movie, Margin Call adeptly showcases the darkest side of our current economic infrastructural woes.
2. The Smartest Guys in the Room
This 2005 documentary is an examination of the 2001 collapse of energy giant Enron, and details the dark side of actual business. In 2000, the 22,000 people on staff at Enron could be proud: they were spending their days at one of Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America.” But on the morning of December 2, 2001, Enron declared bankruptcy. The seventh largest company in America at the time of its collapse, top executives emerged with more than $1 billion in cash and assets. So what about Enron’s investors, and, worse, employees? They left with nothing. The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a cinematic voice to this real-life scandal and its book of the same name, as well as visually encapsulating a dark time in America’s financial history.
3. Quants: The Alchemists of Wall Street
“Quants” are the quantitative analysts and programmers that exist mostly in basements somewhere, and intend to reduce human fiscal and economic behavior to mathematical formulas that in turn may command thousands upon millions of dollars from the global financial system. Although you may not be aware of “quants”, this 45-minute free (on YouTube) documentary showcases the gifted (if not wonky) minds that exist in the cob-webbed backrooms of Wall Street. There is some speculation as to whether quants can or do have all the answers, but pay attention at about the 26-minute mark. Reworking the numbers to alter a risk value? This is a plainclothes way to explain the beginnings of investment fraud: manipulating a variable to change the risk outcome may not correctly represent the data contained, and may in turn influence the decisions of a rating agency. Then again, it’s all in the game.
4. The Devil Wears Prada
Not only does The Devil Wears Prada illustrate the impossible job of assisting a tyrant, but Meryl Streep’s wintry performance as Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestly provides a cinematic peek into the necessarily guarded life of today’s cultural arbiters and/or the inveterate businesswoman of the late 20th century. A look at the more personal dark side of the daily grind — that is, the effect that business can have on personal identity and the internal life — The Devil Wears Prada excels at portrayals of those in all places on the power spectrum.
5. Trading Places
This 1983 film starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy may be a lighthearted satire, but it also proves the hard fact that most of you already knew: commodities brokers in Philly really are all pretty twisted. The Duke brothers, owners of the Duke & Duke brokerage firm, make a bet that they can invert the fates of their managing director, Winthorpe (Aykroyd) and a two-bit street urchin named Valentine (Murphy). They proceed in doing this, turning Valentine into a successful businessman, while Winthorpe spends some time in jail and falls from both professional and personal grace. By the end of the movie, the tables on the commodities trading floor are turned, and the victims of experiment become rich while the Dukes become bona fide paupers. Ripe with satire, sight gags, and symbolism, this film’s got to make you wonder what other cheap bets stock brokers make that cost them $400 million in the end.
6. 9 to 5
An inamorata of working women (and men) everywhere, 9 to 5 is a classic revenge comedy that reminds autocratic bosses to beware of the organized proletariat. Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton shine as women who are fed up with their tyrannical male superior. Part battle of the sexes, part class warfare, partially a movie that highlights the necessity of a flexible workday for today’s working family person, 9 to 5 proves that pretty people can do ugly business.
7. There Will Be Blood
Based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood is a vehicle for both Daniel Day-Lewis and unbridled commentary on the dangers of greed. Daniel Plainview (played by Day-Lewis) is a ruthless small businessman, feigning religious faith and family values in order to capture land, business, and jolt ahead of his competitors. Arguably one of the best movies of the early 21st century, this epic character study shines out as a pointed comment on business, ethics, and the motivations behind the two.
8. Wall Street
The 1987 Oliver Stone masterpiece is the definitive movie about the dirty business of doing business. A sardonic valentine to the excess of the 1980s, Wall Street is at the top of the canon of American business movies, and its overarching influence inspired many of today’s working stockbrokers to their current jobs. A starry-eyed newbie (Charlie Sheen), an unscrupulous mentor (Michael Douglas), insider trading, buy-outs that lead to the demise of many a worker, a hot blonde, and more — if this movie, and the decade from whence it came — doesn’t inspire some critical thinking about the image of success versus the practice of success, nothing will.
9. The Empire Strikes Back
What’s the dark side of business without a little Dark Side? In the 1980 space opera, and arguably the best of the six Star Wars films, the Empire that’s striking back against the valiant and philosophically pure Rebel Alliance is an all-encompassing politicofinancial system that takes its power from pure evil (Sith). The behemoth of power and seemingly unlimited funds is nothing more than a militarized corporation with a political arm — and indeed one that intends to take over the galaxy, while also completely eliminating any detractors or forces of good. Also, instead of a suit and tie, you’ve got a guy in a robot body with a gothic cape. How’s that for dark?
Set in 2805, this gorgeously animated 2008 Pixar film is a robot love story couched within an epic reminder that full-fledged consumerism and big business can often dehumanize those whom it was meant to save. The megacorporation Buy-n-Large (BnL) has fostered life on starliners in space after the Earth was deemed unlivable due to its massive amount of waste. WALL-E reminds the viewer to be a good steward of the earth, and a more mindful consumer. Otherwise, we’ll all be living in posh recliners on starliners and unable to physically take care of ourselves. Hey, that actually doesn’t sound so bad.
This article was first posted on OnlineDegree.net.