Those who were alive and halfway coherent in the 1980s remember it as a decade rife with the excesses of capitalism. It was an era when big business ruled the day and Wall St. culture first took root in the American consciousness. And this time period was notable as much for its wild cast of characters as it was for any economic splash it made. After all, this is the era when a certain Donald Trump – now more famous as the orange-faced caricature of his former self on “Celebrity Apprentice,” – first became a household name. Yes, this was the time of the new business tycoons, and it was reflected everywhere in the culture, including the cinema.
But while mainstream movies about big business became more popular during this decade, American capitalism was hardly a new concept. From Rockefeller to Zuckerberg, icons of the business world – as well the moneymaking entities they created – have been fodder for storytellers. So with that in mind, here are some films from throughout the past few decades that touch on big business in a very human way.
Wall Street (1987)
No list of iconic movies about business would be complete without “Wall Street,” Oliver Stone’s cautionary tale about unfettered ambition and greed. Which is why it’s best to get it out of the way up front. At this point in time, most filmgoers have at least a passing knowledge of Michael Douglas’ famous villain Gordon Gekko, an unscrupulous corporate raider who would sell out his own mother for a percentage (and indeed goes so far as to sell out Charlie Sheen’s own father during the course the of the movie). His famous line, “Greed is good,” is so much a part of the American lexicon that it inspires young Wall Street brokers even today. And in today’s precarious economic climate, the tragic irony of such notions is as thick and gloopy as Gekko’s gelled-back hair.
The Social Network (2010)
Another pseudo-cautionary tale, this one takes a look at friendship and business in the context of the creation of the Internet’s most revolutionary innovation: Facebook. Because the stakes are so high and the betrayal so deep, the drama rises above mere soap opera to something more akin to Greek tragedy. The unique cast of characters alone – the embittered “Winkelvii,” Harvard groupies, an asthmatic Iago as played by Justin Timberlake – makes for a high rewatchability factor.
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
Movie-of-the-week style to be sure, but what this lower budget biopic does have going for it is two strong central characters: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. After all, these are the same two guys that gave people everywhere not just the software they use on their PC computes, but the actual smartphones in their pockets as well. The movie does a good job of contrasting the young Jobs’ indefatigable creative energy and unrelenting drive with Gates’ more analytical mindset and determination to become supreme overlord of the software world.
Office Space (1999)
Not everyone in the world of business has created a company; some are lowly office workers. Office Space, Mike Judge’s hilarious sendup of office culture, makes the list precisely because of its humor and willingness to address the plight of the mid-level, white-collar employee. A cult favorite (i.e. it made no money during its theatrical release), the film has nonetheless endured due in no small part to Ron Livingston’s charm as Peter, the film’s central character and hero of working men everywhere.
While the above list of films is by no means comprehensive (honorable mentions: Mr. Potter, Erin Brockovich, American Psycho, et al), these entries should prove a good starting point for those looking to pass some time with an eclectic group of cinematic business folk.
Paul Gray is a Media Coordinator at Koeppel Direct, a leading direct response television and media buying agency with extensive experience buying for a wide range of products/services.