Hollywood’s take on high finance


With the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the volatility of the stock market, the banking industry and Wall Street have been dominating the news lately.

Oftentimes the economy is difficult for the average person (and many economists) to comprehend, but this has not kept Hollywood from producing several thought-provoking films about the inner workings of Wall Street, banks, and corporations.

Let’s invest time and newsprint to plunge into the world of high finance on film.

Take One

There is no more iconic representation of Wall Street than Oliver Stone’s titular “Wall Street” (1987). Featuring Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning, bone-chilling performance as Gordon Gekko, a ruthless corporate raider who makes his money with the now-legendary philosophy, “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” You can imagine how this sounds to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a neophyte stockbroker who comes into Gekko’s fold. Oliver Stone, never known for his subtlety, expertly captures the extraordinary brazenness of economic excess in the 1980s. While Douglas’ sinister performance rightfully has earned him a place in the history books, it’s a tender, understated performance from real-life father Martin Sheen that holds the film together.

J.C. Chandor has quietly been making exceptional movies (“All is Lost,” “A Most Violent Year”) for the past decade, but his debut, 2011’s “Margin Call” remains his most surprising. A nearly real-time drama, set during 24-hours in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, Chandor’s film examines the human consequences of the people largely responsible for the most significant shift in the lives of millions of Americans. The film is restrained and chatty, letting the viewer make connections of their own accord, but never underestimates its audience and is never mundane. The ensemble cast is studded with newcomers and veterans, including Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore and (undercutting the film’s staying power) Kevin Spacey.

A small financial thriller slipped through the cracks in the summer of 2016 called “Equity,” starring Anna Gunn and Alysia Reiner. Gunn gives a commanding performance as an investment banker who is caught up in a web of insider trading, and Alysia Reiner is a federal prosecutor who stumbles upon her trail. With a nearly all-female cast, the film positions itself as a step forward in on screen representation of women in power, but it doesn’t coddle its characters in any reductive narratives.

Take Two

Larry “The Liquidator” Garfield, portrayed by Danny DeVito, likes to buy up prosperous companies, break them up, and then sell off the pieces. The only problem is he does not care what happens to the workers or communities affected by his actions. That is, until he attempts to take over a New England wire and cable company with a fiesty owner (Gregory Peck) and a clever and beautiful (it is Hollywood, after all) corporate attorney (Penelope Ann Miller). This is the set up for “Other People’s Money” (1991), a forgotten gem from Academy Award-winning director Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night”, “Moonstruck”). Devito is at his absolute best in this heartwarming romantic comedy leaving the audience wondering how these two warring factions can possibly overcome their differences.

Robert Wise is most famous for directing two Academy Award-winning musicals, “West Side Story” (1961) and “The Sound of Music” (1965), but Wise (who also edited “Citizen Kane”) worked in many other genres, including dramas, noirs, westerns, and science fiction. His film “Executive Suite” (1954) was a box office smash with an all-star cast, including William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March and Shelly Winters. The story centers on a furniture corporation whose CEO dies unexpectedly and the manifestations that transpire, among the board of directors, in choosing a replacement. Holden is reluctantly at the center of the board’s manipulations as the film broadly examines the American worker and the quality of the products being manufactured.

Everyone should watch Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” (2015), which cleverly explains what happened (and why) when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and sent economic systems throughout the world into panic and near-total collapse. By “breaking the fourth wall” — having actors look at the camera and directly address the audience — the mysteries of hedge funds and the mortgage industry are explained in lay terms. The film stars Christian Bale as Michael Burry —the first fund manager to foresee the housing bubble collapse and the consequences that would follow. Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt co-star, along with a mesmerizing performance by Steve Carrell as Mark Baum, a dour skeptic hedge fund manager who realizes the devastation that is awaiting us all.

(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer, Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)

No posts to display