For filmmakers, the financial crisis just keeps on giving.
January sees the UK release of The Big Short, the latest in a line of dramas and feature-length documentaries about the high-stakes world of financial markets leading up to the crash.
It is based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling book about eccentric investors who predicted the demise of the US subprime mortgage market and bet against an increasingly shaky financial system. The film has already won plaudits for tackling chewy concepts, including collateralised debt obligations, through big name stars such as Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.
The Big Short is far from unique in its accessibility, however. Filmmakers have a long history of raking over crashes and exposing the iniquity of markets. Our business team picks seven other financial-themed films to watch this holiday.
Trading Places (1983)
This is a classic: not just the ultimate Christmas film but the best film about financial markets ever made. In our family, Christmas hasn’t really begun until we have all sat down to watch this morality tale set in the Philadelphia of the early 1980s.
Randolph and Mortimer Duke are crooked brothers who own the commodity brokers Duke and Duke. Randolph is an ardent believer that people are shaped by their environment and makes a bet with his brother they can replace the Harvard-educated snob (Louis Winthorpe), who runs their business, with a conman from the ghetto (Billy Ray Valentine) without any detrimental effect on their business. They contrive to get Winthorpe arrested and fired on trumped up drugs charges and make the switch.
What neither Winthorpe nor Valentine know is that the Dukes have a plan to get hold of a top secret government report that will enable them to clean up in the market for orange juice.
Trading Places is utterly hilarious from start to finish, while at the same time capturing how financial markets work with pitch-perfect accuracy. Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy have never been better in their roles as Winthorpe and Valentine, and there are splendid supporting performances from Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy as the Dukes, Denholm Elliott as Coleman the butler, and Jamie Lee Curtis as the hooker with the heart of gold. Watch out also for a cameo from Bo Diddley as the pawnbroker.
Top quote: “In this building, it’s either kill or be killed. You make no friends in the pits and you take no prisoners. One minute you’re up half a million in soybeans and the next, boom, your kids don’t go to college and they’ve repossessed your Bentley.”
Normal rating: *****
Financial Accuracy Rating: *****
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
A Christmas classic and year-round motivational viewing for building society managers, rarely so heroically depicted as in this fantasy of a man shown the true value and purpose of his middling life.
In a pivotal scene, James Stewart’s George Bailey persuades panicked customers to resist the overtures of the odious banker Potter and keep faith in their long-term investments in his Building and Loans society.
No, it’s not quite how it later panned out in Britain’s post-Thatcher financial evolution: when most societies demutualised, took the money and ran. The Nationwide boss of today is unlikely to be bailed out by grateful townsfolk, but then he’s now considerably richer. Merry Christmas!
Top quote: “You’re thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house … and a hundred others.”
Financial accuracy rating: ***
Mary Poppins (1964)
What will win, naive Corbynomics or Osborne-style austerity with capital investment in infrastructure?
While Mr Banks’s son Michael favours frittering away his tuppence in the little old birdwoman’s small business, alleviating hunger on the steps of St Paul’s, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank has other plans. Through a prudent deposit, Mr Banks informs his reluctant son: “You’ll be part of railways in Africa, dams across the Nile, majestic self-amortising canals.” Michael resists, runs off with his tuppence, and sparks a run on the bank.
The conclusion is clear. The children’s influence, along with that of the nefarious Poppins, leads the entire bank board to abandon their duties and go fly a kite – a staging post on the route to excess and hedonism in the financial sector that would eventually lead to The Wolf of Wall Street.
Top quote: “Soon that tuppence, safely invested in the bank, will compound. And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest, as your affluence expands.”
Financial accuracy rating: *****
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Britain, 1951: smokestacks, textile towns, bombsites, food rationing. Perhaps 9 million workers in trade unions. On London’s South Bank, under the shadow of the futuristic Skylon, the festival of Britain points the way to a technological workers’ paradise.
Meanwhile audiences in smoke-filled cinemas – many, I would like to think, still wearing their sturdy demob suits from the Burton cloth empire – settle down to watch Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton. The unworldly, innocent chemist in his lab, surrounded by gently bubbling test tubes and flasks as he pursues his dream of a material that will repel all dirt and never wear out. Everlasting clean clothes – no more drudgery in the textile mills, no more washboards and chapped hands.
It has been said that obsolescence was first deliberately built in to consumer goods in the 1920s by a shady cartel of lightbulb manufacturers in Germany who reduced the working lives of their bulbs from 2,500 hours to 1,000. Ever since then we have been working ever faster to consume ever more.
But when Stratton finally appears to have succeeded, textile workers and bosses alike quickly realise the technological miracle will consign their jobs and fortunes to history. An unholy alliance is formed, of cigar-smoking capitalists and cap-wearing labour, ranged against, well, disruptive technology, you might call it.
Stratton’s dream turns to nightmare as, gleaming in white, he is chased through the sooty streets by an angry mob.
Finally he is cornered and grabbed by the hands of the mob, but the suit has begun to disintegrate, turning to pretty white fluff, melting into the sooty air. The nightmare turns back into a dream.
Top quote: “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?”
Financial accuracy rating: *****
Margin Call (2011)
The film is a clever portrayal of the investment banking meltdown of 2008, capturing the sense that giant firms, operating over-complex financial models that their own directors did not understand, could fold like a pack of cards. The memory of Lehman Brothers is never far away.
Margin Call opens with a classic scene from the crisis years: mass sackings on the trading floor, executed without compassion and with military-like speed. One of the victims is veteran risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) who slips a computer file to a young brain-box analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). The data shows the firm’s position in junk mortgages is far worse than anybody understood.
Or, as Jeremy Irons, as the bank’s flashy and immoral big boss, puts it after flying in by helicopter at night: “So, what you’re telling me is that the music is about to stop, and we’re going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.”
As Irons attempts to cajole lead character Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) into a disgraceful plan to save the firm while legging over clients, Margin Call is a reminder of just how cynical modern banking can be behind the steel and glass facades.
Top quote: “There are three way to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter or cheat.”
Financial accuracy rating: *****
Wall Street (1987)
Jam-packed with quotable one-liners, Wall Street ruthlessly – and enjoyably – portrays the inner workings of financial capitalism, 1980s style.
The sleekly amoral Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, makes a fortune through insider trading, share ramping, and asset-stripping, and his protege Bud Fox, played by a young Charlie Sheen, comes along for the ride.
Fox believes he is as ruthless and determined as his red braces-wearing, Cuban cigar-smoking mentor; but finally balks at ripping apart the airline for which his salt-of-the-earth dad, played by his real-life father Martin Sheen, is the union rep.
It’s not subtle, but it’s well-acted and beautifully shot, from Gekko watching the sunrise over the shore clutching a brick-sized cellphone, to the cosy nooks of the wood-panelled diner where he treats Fox to steak tartare and urges him to get a proper suit.
And while Gekko’s “greed is good” polemics may seem overdone, you only have to read the emails that flew back and forth between the traders in the libor-rigging cases earlier this year, to know that his spirit is alive and well.
Top quote: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Financial accuracy rating: ****
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese’s draining black comedy, crammed with sex and drugs, tells the story of real-life crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort. While earlier audiences were prepared to let “greed is good” Gekko off the hook, Scorsese and his leading man Leonardo DiCaprio faced a much tougher crowd – their film hit cinemas at the time many viewers were picking up the pieces from the global financial crisis.
The Wolf of Wall Street charts the rise and the not so terrible fall of Belfort – he served only 22 months in jail for securities fraud. The protagonist evolves from shy new starter on Wall Street to loud-mouthed founder of Long Island brokerage house Stratton Oakmont, where he uses a boiler room of equally raucous colleagues to bully savers into get-rich-quick penny share schemes. Eventually he is snared by the FBI.
Film critics were full of praise for the film’s relentless pace, dazzling performances and outlandish plot. DiCaprio and Belfort himself both defended it as a cautionary tale. But many viewers, including his victims, understandably felt the film was too easy on the fraudster and glamourised his excessive lifestyle.
Top quote: “Number one rule of Wall Street: Nobody, I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or if you’re Jimmy Buffet, nobody knows if a stock is gonna go up, down, sideways or in fucking circles, least of all stockbrokers.”
Financial accuracy rating: ****
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