This week’s release of John Lee Hancock’s The Founder brings the darker side of American big business to the fore. It’s the story of Ray Kroc, the milkshake machine salesman who discovered a revolutionary fast food outlet in California and turned it into the business that today feeds 1% of the global population. McDonald’s. But it’s also about ambition and winning at all costs, regardless of the casualties along the way.
The world behind that corporate face has always held a fascination for film makers, even if it’s not always presented in the most flattering of lights. The financial crisis of 2007/8 made its way to the big screen in 2012 in the shape of Margin Call, about an investment bank facing meltdown. With an ensemble cast that included Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons, it turned the financial crisis into a thriller, with sky high stakes. It was all about survival of the fittest – not the most ethical or professional, but the most ruthless. Just three years later, it acquired a companion piece, another film looking at the financial crash, but this time concentrating on how it affected the housing market and the people who lost their homes. 99 Homes (2015) pitched a resurgent Andrew Garfield as a homeless young family man against the e-cig smoking Michael Shannon as the estate agent responsible for his predicament. The sight of evicted homeowners sat on the kerb surrounded by their possessions all but broke our hearts. And money grabbers like Shannon’s Rick Carver stood ready to make the most of the situation, financially and otherwise.
The trio was completed in 2016 by The Big Short, which fell somewhere between the two in terms of its story and tone. Another A-list cast – Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling – gave us the true story of four financiers who predicted the crash and decided to play the banks at their own game. Knowingly the most complex of the three and with large helpings of humour to explain the jargon, its morals were deeply ambiguous. But it was also simultaneously entertaining and unsettling. These three cinematic soul mates may not have been intended as companion pieces, but that’s what they are, each presenting a different facet of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s. Definitely worth a binge watch.
Not that the naughties had a monopoly on business movies. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) set the bar when it came to depicting the attitudes and practices of the 80s. Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko was more than just his “greed is good” speech, exemplifying the world of shady deals and fast lifestyles. Protégé Charlie Sheen’s red braces became de rigeur for anybody working in the financial sector. The long awaited sequel, Wall Street:Money Never Sleeps didn’t arrive until 2010, by which time the markets had crashed and, compared to what was happening in the real world, Gekko’s story had lost much of its bite.
Sandwiched in between came two often overlooked but seriously weighty pieces of cinema with business in mind. David Mamet’s blistering stage play, Glengarry Glen Ross, moved to the big screen in 1992 with a cast headed by Al Pacino and veteran Jack Lemmon, plus rising stars Kevin Spacey and Ed Harris. A brutal depiction of a high pressure real estate office with its highs and lows, red-leads and dead-leads, it almost foresaw the likes of Margin Call and 99 Homes, but its stage origins meant it was almost completely confined within four walls. A disadvantage for some films, but a definite plus for this powder keg.
1999 brought Michael Mann’s The Insider, based on the true story of whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, a former research scientist at a tobacco company. Under pressure from a persistent TV producer for an interview, he eventually gives in, regardless of a confidentiality agreement. But when it’s shelved, he’s hung out to dry. Another business thriller, but with none of the high octane action that made the director’s name, this had an outstanding performance from Russell Crowe. With his grey hair and pale features, he was almost unrecognisable and superbly low-key as Wigand.
Movie makers have also turned their attention to the individuals at the top of the company, with impressive results. Think Citizen Kane (1941), The Aviator (2004), with Leonardo Di Caprio as the eccentric Howard Hughes and, more recently, Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs (2015). All larger than life characters in their way and all very much at home on the big screen. The list of films about women entrepreneurs is noticeably shorter, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy (2016), the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop who founded a family business dynasty.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of film portraying the world of business, what it shows is that corporate life and high finance is nowhere near as dry as it might appear from outside those glittering towers. It’s been a happy hunting ground for film makers over the years and, in the current circumstances, it’s only a matter of time before we get another glut of films on the same theme. Brexit The Movie, anybody?
The Founder is released in cinemas on Friday, 17 February 2017. Read the Filmoria verdict here.