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Financial Literacy through Economic Narratives (August 2015): Films

By Roark Mulligan


Financial films have the power to reach a large audience quickly with highly entertaining stories.  Like written narratives, these films explore economic themes, educating through a compelling medium that can deliver messages to the masses.  Considered by some critics to be the best film ever made, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, like Dreiser’s “Trilogy of Desire,” traces the life of a financial titan from birth to death, revealing the tragic cost of his success.  Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, another perennial classic, tells a melodramatic tale of community banking, pitting a greedy banker against the director of a small building and loan company.  In the end, the socially responsible protagonist and his moral behavior triumph with the support of his town.  In 1951, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was adapted to the big screen as A Place in the Sun.  Like the novel, the film exposes the dangers of striving too hard for upward mobility.

More recently, financial films have focused on the fall of the tycoon, a descent that can be comic or tragic.  In John Landis’s Trading Places, a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) trades places with a rising young financier (Dan Aykroyd); the result is a humorous social experiment that explores issues of nature versus nurture.  In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the main character, Gordon Gekko, popularizes the phrase “Greed is good” in a speech that valorizes ruthless capitalism, and the sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, though less successful as a film, updates the means by which financiers unscrupulously win and lose.  Based on the real-life story of fraudulent derivatives trader Nick Leeson, James Dearden’s film Rogue Trader dramatizes the unauthorized trading that caused the collapse of Barings Bank.  In Nicholas Jarecki’s film Arbitrage, an unethical, failing financier unloads his worthless company while avoiding criminal charges.

Moving from financial realism to gothic horror, Mary Harron’s film adaptation of Ellis’s American Psycho depicts a wealthy investment banker who acts with an impunity that even he (a serial killer) laments.  And very recently a number of well-known directors have tackled financial themes in high-profile films.  Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the life of a stock trader named Jordan Belfort, exposes the corrupt practices of penny-stock traders who work out of “bucket shops.”  In Blue Jasmine, a film that depicts the personal consequences of financial failure, Woody Allen traces the tragic fall of a financier’s wife.  Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, captures one day in the life of a billionaire currency trader, who drives around New York City in a limousine, losing a fortune as he is pursued by “credible threats.”

Another common theme in financial films is alienation and displacement caused by competitive work environments or economic disruptions.  In Glengarry Glen Ross, based on the David Mamet play of the same name, a group of New York real estate agents compete to survive.  And in Barbarians at the Gate, director Glenn Jordan dramatizes the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco.  In The Company Men, director John Wells depicts the fall of corporate executives and their attempt to maintain self-respect while resuscitating their careers.  Focusing on a fictional Wall Street firm that survives the 2008 subprime crisis, Margin Call realistically details the firm’s ruthless actions to ensure its survival.

Since the 1980s, when Michael Moore’s award-winning film Roger and Me appeared, financial documentaries have proliferated, depicting economic disasters and corporate bankruptcies.  Moore’s film focuses on the collapse of the automobile industry in Flint, Michigan, as the filmmaker boldly attempts to confront Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors.  Subsequent documentaries have proven just as popular, often receiving wide distribution in theaters or on television.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (which was based on Bethany McLean’s The Smartest Guys in the Room) was nominated for an Oscar, and the five-part documentary Inside Job, which scrutinizes the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, won an Oscar for best documentary.  In addition, numerous television documentaries have been produced; notable among them was Bill Moyers’s PBS series Moyers and Company, which included episodes on financial topics.

Although less common, there are films that celebrate economic justice and/or entrepreneurial innovation.  One such classic is Robin Hood, which was revived by Ridley Scott in 2010, the same year the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act became law.  The cult classic Office Space is a modern Robin Hood tale in which three unhappy office workers employ a computer glitch to rob from their rich employer.  Finally, David Fincher’s The Social Network memorializes the meteoric rise of social media tycoon Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, a paragon of the new digital economy.