Visual essay:
Representing capitalism in popular movies

Films related to the Introduction:

Money isn’t everything; entertainment value is. A look at movie receipts can be as instructive as it can be ethereal. As if to forecast the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump polarity, Box Office Mojo’s list of the top ten moneymaking political documentaries includes five Michael Moore docs and two by conservative commentator/convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza. Also in the top ten is a Ben Stein vehicle promoting ‘intelligent design.’ The relatively small gross receipts of the non-fiction film when compared with popular fiction films suggest that documentaries are preaching to an elite subset of adherent choirs that sing in vastly different denominations.

That’s Entertainment. Box Office Mojo puts Inside Job at #10 of the top selling political docs, grossing $4.3 million (plus $3.5m in foreign receipts). Not bad for a documentary that cost about $2 million to make especially when compared to the ‘art-house’ film Cosmopolis, which cost $20 million to make and couldn’t break $1 million in the U.S. in spite of the presence of heartthrob Robert Pattinson, whose five Twilight movies grossed a total of over $1.3 billion. Social issues may help to sell a movie but the audience, always in search of the emotional journey, demands to be entertained above all else.


Topical Issue of the Day. Movies that explore the function, value and impact of the capitalist economy through popular entertainment are not a post 2008, or for that matter a post 1929 phenomenon. In Voice of the Violin (Griffith, 1909) a German immigrant, who teaches the violin, joins a bomb-tossing anarchist group after being spurned by a student, the daughter of a wealthy family. The film was inspired by a number of violent actions that took place a year earlier in what was called the “anarchist outrages of 1908.”

Art & Commerce. The clash between art and commerce is one of the primary themes in Frank Norris’ 1903 novel The Pit, part exposé about wheat speculation and part romantic melodrama. In the wake of the Panic of 1907, D.W. Griffith credited the 200 plus page novel as source material for his 14-minute film adaptation (A Corner in Wheat, 1908), which focused on the impact speculation had on celebratory capitalists, struggling farmers and impoverished consumers.

In the Public Interest. Claude Rains and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939) explore the abuse of power, and the questionable relationship between the private and public sectors as it affects the public interest. The film was able to show how a political machine operates, how a filibuster works, and how a bill is passed without losing its audience by engaging the audience in the heroics of an ‘everyman’ who refused to be corrupted.

Our Most Socially Sanctioned Deadly Sin. Greed as a part of human nature is a familiar theme in popular culture. Also based on a Frank Norris’ novel, McTeague, greed is abundantly evident in what’s left of Stroheim’s nine-hour 1924 silent movie, Greed. Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) wants all the gold in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which is spoofed in an episode from the Nickelodeon TV series Rugrats (1991- 1994). After finding a nickel that everybody fights over, Chucky declares “We don’t need any stinking nickels,” but the gang’s day is ruined by their obsession for the possibility of finding more buried coins, and the failure to figure out how to divide a nickel five ways.

Films related to Arbitrage

All in the Family—Capitalism as a MacGuffin. “[T]he 2008 crash is just the background...The background may revolve around socially conscious behavior but at the end of the day, people need to be entertertained.” —  Oliver Stone on the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Forbes 10/12/10.

Wall Street (Stone, 1987). Greed is good when it’s the MacGuffin that drives the family melodrama. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), an ambitious young stockbroker is unintentionally provided with inside information during a passing conversation with his father (Martin Sheen), a union leader at Bluestar, a struggling airline. Bud’s ambition leads to his rise from a roach infested apartment to a Manhattan penthouse, and then to his fall at the shame at having betrayed his father’s confidence and his own deep-rooted working class values.  His rise and fall hints at an awakening class-consciousness.

A blue-collar worker escorts the perp off the Wall Street premises, but not before Bud has atoned for the betrayal of his father. Bud will go to jail but dad tells him there’s a job waiting for him at Bluestar where he can “create instead of living off the buying and selling of others.”

Just Deserts. The bad guy gets exactly what he deserves. Bud betrays his villainous surrogate father, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) who is financially screwed on the airline deal by a hated nemesis, and then is convicted for insider trading thanks to evidence provided by Bud.

Melodrama Never Sleeps. In Stone's sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Stone, 2010), the plot convolutes as it thickens. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) watches the financial market meltdown along with his dream of using his wealth to invest in a fusion project that he believes will provide an inexhaustible, sustainable source of energy.

Capital Infusion. Jake marries Winnie (Carey Mulligan), the estranged daughter of Gordon Gekko, then finds out that his father-in-law has left Winnie with a $100 million illegal Swiss account that he wants to use for the fusion project. Like Jimmy and Brooke in Arbitrage, he wants to do something good with the money. Through a series of plot machinations, one betrayal leads to another, Winnie becomes pregnant, the couple separates, and Gekko takes off with the money intended for his daughter.

Let’s Make a Deal. Gekko’s Bloomberg computer terminal filled with financial data is replaced by a video sonogram of his prenatal grandson provided by Jake who wants to trade visiting rights for a return of the $100 million to Winnie.

More Just Deserts. Jake, Gekko and eventually Winnie plot against the cutthroat Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the capitalist scapegoat and pinata boy of the movie, who has caused so much ruin. In his final scene, at the recognition of his failure, James smashes a Goya painting of Saturn Devouring His Son, as if to admonish himself for a bad plan, or perhaps for not being ruthless enough.

Shiny happy people replete with party hats and balloons are featured in the saccharine-sweet end-credit sequence as they celebrate the first birthday of Winnie and Jake’s son. In a sense, their son is metaphorically devoured when his dad treats the boy like a (blue) poker chip that he used to secure the $100 million he wanted. A version of social order is restored, and they all live happily ever after.


The Madoff family during happier times. Truth being stranger than fiction, the story of the real-life embezzler Bernie Madoff's family is closer to the realm of tragedy than melodrama, something ABC and HBO are eager to exploit with the 2016 release of two different projects:

ABC’s Madoff with Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner.
HBO’s The Wizard of Lies with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro.

Quality Control. From another era, two films are often cited as thoughtful ruminations on the corporate world that also successfully mix complex melodrama with an equally complex philosophical inquiry into the meaning of work in the modern world. William Holden in Executive Suite (Wise, 1954) battles for control of the board room while he laments the loss of pride in workmanship by angrily pulling apart a shoddy piece of merchandise the furniture company makes in order to “add a dime a year to the dividend.”

Rat Race. Gregory Peck as an upwardly mobile WWII vet with a dramatic and secretive history in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Johnson, 1956). At a job interview for a public relations position at a TV network, he’s told by his stressed-out, reclining interviewer (Arthur O’Connell), to spend one hour in an adjoining room writing an autobiography that must end with the sentence: The most significant thing about me is…