Eating, sleeping and watching movies in the shadow of what they do: representing capitalism in post 2008 popular films

by Michael Pepe

­People interested in learning about the Financial Crisis of 2008 are more likely to read a book or view a documentary rather than watch a popular movie. In fact, most working people, myself included, watch movies like Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, or The Big Short more because of the films’ stars, filmmakers, movie reviews, or advertising campaigns, rather than a burning desire to learn more about how economic systems work or fail to work. Nevertheless, topical social issues are part of what attracts viewers to a movie. [click here to see visual essay on films related to the introduction]

The 2008 crisis affected so many of us that, like the 1929 crisis, it could not be ignored as an anomaly, a “market correction,” blamed on a rogue entity like ENRON or Bernie Madoff, and then written about in periodic “below the fold” articles. In the wake of the crisis, a battle-worn public casts a suspicious eye on the financial markets after losing jobs and savings, drowning in underwater homes, and seeing their children burdened with exorbitant college debt only to have them chase after lackluster jobs that threaten to disappear at any moment. Regardless of individual viewers’ political leanings, all of this must surely affect us as we watch movies that dramatize or allude to the events involving the crisis and then try to make sense out of what fictional narratives are trying to convey about our post-Crisis political economy.

Selecting from a flood of international fiction and non-fiction films that reference the crisis directly or indirectly, I have limited this article to five “popular” movies that I feel each has something uniquely different to say about the current state of capitalism:

Cosmopolis, more art-house film than popular movie, offers a compelling allegory of the (self) destructive nature of capitalism. I then offer a brief discussion of Too Big to Fail and The Big Short as books and films. In a Visual Essay following this analysis, I address some of the complementary issues, movie genres, and documentaries on the subject that raise additional but related concerns. And so my approach is part narrative and part visual analysis.

By definition, popular movies offer an emotional journey rather than an intellectual pursuit. Needless to say, this is why you do not have to be an astrophysicist to understand Gravity (Curarón, 2013), a meth user or chemist to enjoy Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008-13), or an economist to appreciate Margin Call (Chandor, 2011).And so when popular films explore how economic policy fuels social stratification, they will likely be tethered to a personal human drama as experienced by the fabulously wealthy, the miserably downtrodden, that vast marvel known as the middle class, or a combination of the above.

Previous to the most recent economic crisis, filmic critiques of capitalism focused on mostly invisible corporate villains who were represented by their legal surrogates in David and Goliath revenge stories. In a 2000 article that references The Rainmaker (Coppola, 1997), A Civil Action (Zaillian, 1998), The Insider (Mann, 1999) and Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh, 2000), Philip Lopate argues that that cycle of anti-corporate films lacks a “nuanced presentation of corporate life” opting for “melodramatic caricature” instead. According to Lopate, the reason for this is that these “movies are [reluctant] to show the corporate world from the inside.” As a result:

“Anticorporate films are only seemingly subversive. In fact, they enshrine the capitalist principles of individualism and hard work. The old American ethos declared that if you worked hard you might become a millionaire; the new one says, if you pound the pavements and scan the computer records long enough, you might nail a millionaire.”

Recently, more popular films have been released that do in fact look at the corporate world from the inside, accurately or not. Seemingly, the Financial Crisis of 2008 requires a look from the inside as it does not involve the specificity of environmental destruction dramatized in the previous cycle. In other words, the financial crisis is not about an individual tort claim against a bad faith insurance company (The Rainmaker), or toxins that poison the local water supply because of the actions of a corporation (Erin Brockovich), nor does it involve the punishment of a single whistleblower, or the dubious relationship between the media and the industry it is reporting about (The Insider). Instead, the public has grudgingly come to understand something new as a result of the Crisis: Our economic problems are systemic and are rooted in a dangerously incestuous interdependence among rapacious financial institutions, complicit legislators, complacent governmental regulatory agencies, and a largely apathetic public victimized by predatory lenders and our own financial and political ignorance. A culture of greed has, intentionally or not, been fostered by our institutions for decades and fueled consumers’ self-destructive appetite for stuff.

In an early scene from Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, 2012), a twenty-something IT security analyst expresses a host of existential doubts and insecurities to his boss, a 28-year-old asset manager. From the confines of a stretched limo, he also conveys a self-reflexive sense of hubris: “People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do.” Unlike the previous cycle of films that featured the plight of working and middle class people front and center, ‘the people’ are virtually absent from the current cycle. When working people make an appearance they are mute witnesses objectified as car park attendants, household servants, office cleaners, strippers, demonstrators, or as part of a faceless crowd, passive in the background to a narrative foreground animated by investment bankers, stockbrokers, fund managers, venture capitalist, and a host of financiers. The setting for all but one of the post 2008 cycle of films written about here is New York City, but it is not the city of neighborhoods where most residents eat, sleep and watch movies. Instead the cinematic representation of the city is more a symbol, a port of call for global capitalism, if not its locus.

Young, smart, and raised by wolves. From Cosmopolis, Jay Baruchel as Shiner, in the throes of an existential crisis over his passion for information, and doubt as to how it is used. Demonstrators parade a prop, the capitalist rat, past a limo in Times Square. The current cycle of anti-corporate movies feature both figurative and literal views from the limo.
The tipping point: Meanwhile, from Margin Call, a virtually invisible public goes about its business unaware ... ... that they are about to have their pockets royally picked.

Taken together, the films offer no unifying message about the state of post 2008 capitalism nor advise what to do about it. Instead, they dramatize iterations of greed that are psychological, philosophical and institutional in nature. While defining the contours of a pathology of greed, the films explore rough-and-tumble concepts close to the heart of many popular narratives: the Faustian bargain, patriarchy, economic manifest destiny, the Hobson choice, nihilism, and the horror, folly, and joy of living in the material world.

Arbitrage (Jarecki, 2012)

The rewards that result in the willingness to engage in ruthless behavior in the marketplace are showcased during the opening credits. Shots of servants performing household duties in the opulent home of the Miller family are intercut ...
... with the hedge fund billionaire being interviewed about his exploits by CNBC/FOX anchor Maria Bartiromo (above) ... ... and with shots of Robert’s wife Ellen, who behaves with the complacency of the lapdog she holds, until the last act of the movie.

Arbitrage uses the conventions of a family melodrama to tell a story about a wealthy patriarch and the politics of class, gender and race. After hedge-fund billionaire Robert Miller’s (Richard Gere) surprise 60th birthday party, Miller makes excuses to his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and heads off to meet his young French mistress (Laetitia Casta). By the end of the first act, Robert has fallen asleep at the wheel of his mistress’ car and she is instantly killed. Robert leaves the scene of the accident and spends the rest of the movie dodging the police who are trying to prove that he’s guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Complicating matters, Robert is also trying to evade “fraudulent conveyance” charges after misappropriating $400 million of his clients’ money to invest in a copper mine that didn’t pay off. [click here to see visual essay on films related to Arbitrage]

In the process of circumventing his personal and professional legal problems, he manipulates and places in legal jeopardy various people including his daughter and business partner, Brooke (Brit Marling), and Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the African American son of his recently deceased chauffeur of 20 years. The parallel stories show how Miller justifies betraying his daughter; it helps him with his fraudulent conveyance problem. Similarly, he exploits the son of his former driver to avoid the scandal of being charged with involuntary manslaughter. The movie’s interest derives from its plot.

Lionized for his success in the market during a TV interview, Robert rationalizes, justifies and apologizes for his aggressive behavior which he connects to what he learned from the experiences of his working class Depression/WWII era parents: Robert’s father welded steel for the navy; his mother worked for the V.A; they lived through the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Bomb; they didn’t “think bad things might happen, they knew bad things would happen.” His life-story implies that his family’s wealth came from their willingness to seek out and exploit bad things that are about to happen to other people. During the interview we also learn that Robert has made his fortune by betting on a housing crisis during a housing boom—by speculating and counting on the misfortune of others.

White man’s burden: Making a speech at his 60th birthday party, Robert uses the language of objectification, as he refers to this gathering of familial humanity as his “best work.” In both pleasant and unpleasant situations, Robert, seemingly blind to his own blatant hypocrisy, is quick to remind family members and associates of the self-perceived burdens and responsibilities of the patriarch.
We are family: The chiaroscuro lighting during the birthday scene may remind viewers of The Godfather movies ... ...as much as Robert’s request that there be, “no business tonight” after his son brings up the sale of Miller Capital, the family business, at the family table.
Family values: Shortly after the heartfelt birthday speech, he makes his excuses to the wife and then it’s off to see the mistress. Robert repeatedly demonstrates that the acquisition and safeguarding of his personal wealth and power, and the preservation of his own skin, will take precedence over all else.

Jimmy, the surrogate son, lives in Harlem, has a prior conviction and is called upon to extricate Robert from the crash site because Robert’s biological son “would have fucked it up.” As a result, Jimmy is arrested and then released with the help of Robert’s lawyers. Jimmy naively asks Robert why he didn’t stay at the scene since the death was not intentional. Robert offers his self-promoting, paternal rationalization:

“I couldn’t. Because I have responsibilities. If I stayed there, a lot of people would have gotten hurt. I got business troubles you understand. People rely on me.”

When Jimmy is offered a $2-million dollar trust, he exhibits working class pride by taking offense to the idea that he’s being paid off not to snitch. “Do you think money is going to fix this?” says Jimmy. Robert replies, “What else is there?” By the end of the film Jimmy does take the money saying, “I’m going to do something good with it.” Shortly after this scene, Brooke confronts her father/partner with the complaint that because of his actions at the firm, she faces the possibility of losing her brokers license, jail time and a ruined reputation. Robert explodes, “You are not my partner! You work for me! Everybody works for me!” And later more calmly, “I’m the patriarch. That’s my role.” Robert tells Brooke he didn’t commit fraud; he made a bad bet. He describes the bad bet on the copper mine as “a license to print money for everybody. Forever! It is God.” Again Robert denies self-interest. He refers to himself as “the oracle” and implies that he was looking out for the interests of “everybody” and so he is entitled to take risks, even if it means operating “outside the charter” and lying about it. The parallel stories of manslaughter and fraud link his professional and personal behavior. In his view, everything that he does is for the sake of the family or his business relations.

Accidents will happen. Somehow, Robert has conflated leaving the scene of an accident for which he is responsible with making a personal sacrifice that will eventually help others. The archetypal trickle-down capitalist as depicted in many of these films, demonstrates a hypocritical paternalism accompanied by a strong sense of entitlement. They often do not acknowledge or perhaps even perceive their own self-interest in accumulating great wealth; instead they believe they are following the natural order of things and that their success serves some greater social good.

Ellen had tacit knowledge of Robert’s French mistress and other dalliances, and has also become aware of his financial problems. Now that Robert has placed their daughter in legal jeopardy by making her complicit in the fraud, the matriarch in Ellen emerges (“You broke our little girl’s heart”) to challenge the authority of the patriarch. Robert is tossed a separation agreement in which all ownership and voting rights transfer out of Miller Capital into the charitable foundation that is to be administered by their daughter. Ellen will lie to the police about Robert’s whereabouts on the night of the incident as long as he signs the agreement. Angered, Robert complains that Ellen is trying to blackmail him. Ellen replies, “I think we call it negotiating,” something Robert has been doing in many ways throughout the movie.

The film ends as it began, with a celebration of billionaire Robert Miller, this time at a black tie charitable affair. Now the applause and commendations from the family are hollow—a show for the public. The family is destroyed but reaps the rewards from Robert’s fraudulent deal. Like Jimmy, Ellen and Brooke will no doubt, do something good with the money.  Robert gets to keep the pretense of respectability, a good part of his money, and avoids legal trouble.

Ultimately Robert Miller is depicted as a kind of bulletproof monster, able to deflect social and moral responsibilities and evade legal consequences. Even when the police try falsifying evidence, they can’t nail him. His power, wealth, and cunning, shield him from any meaningful penalty. As the tagline from the movie says: Power is the best alibi.

Because of the film’s focus on family melodrama, the actual practices of hedge-fund managers and arbitrageurs, and the impact they have on the public are implied in the narrative background and are easily obscured. Instead, the term arbitrage (risk-free opportunity to buy low and sell high) becomes an ironic if shadowy personal metaphor for the actual practice, and what the viewer is left with is a smartly sketched psychology of avaricious self-interest in the lone character of billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Miller.

The art of the deal: Robert Miller’s most authentic, cat-that-ate-the-canary smiles, emerge at moments of victory over those who have failed to sublimate his power. On the left, after selling his business thereby plugging the $400 million hole, avoiding charges of fraud, and making a profit. ... ... On the right, after outfoxing the police, thereby alleviating his guilt by winning Jimmy a get out of jail free card, and dodging the public disgrace of criminal charges.
The art of the deal, part 2: In the final act of the movie Ellen puts a metaphorical chink in the glass phallus when she challenges her husband’s role as the patriarch. ... ... In a stark if obvious visual metaphor, Robert and Ellen stand on either side of their king size bed while Robert reads the separation agreement.
Bulletproof: At the funeral parlor, his dead mistress' clueless mother (Gabrielle Lazure) embraces Robert, thanking him for all the support he gave her artist daughter. Detective Bryer (Tim Roth) is Columbo-esque in many ways except in his ability to nail his wealthy adversary.