It Seems to Me
Business Takes the Rap Again in “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood.”
In the category of advertising known as “institutional,” companies try not to sell products or services but to craft an image of themselves as decent, upright, responsible corporate citizens. You can see these messages on the Op Ed page of the New York Times (ExxonMobil and General Motors), the inside covers of opinion magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Harpers (Chevron‘s “We can’t do this alone”) and on public television (Archer Daniels Midland). It’s not a new phenomenon. What’s amazing is how ineffective it has been.
The fact is, most people don’t believe these ads. Public opinion polls confirm the low regard in which business is held. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence comes from the portrayal of business in popular media. At this year’s Oscars ceremony, two of the five films nominated for best picture of the year depicted business as loathsome. In Michael Clayton a pesticide manufacturer resorts to bribery and murder to silence critics. In There Will Be Blood, actor Daniel Day-Lewis won for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a rapacious oil wildcatter in the early part of the last century; the film concludes with his beating a minister to death with bowling pins. Lewis is married to the daughter of the late Arthur Miller, whose two early plays, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, also presented a less than flattering picture of American business.
These films are just the latest in a long line of movies where business people are villains. And not just petty villains, but monstrous ones, capable of heinous acts of violence and cruelty. I recently rented the 2005 film, North Country, a story, accompanied by Bob Dylan lyrics, of women getting harassed unmercifully when they go to work in the taconite mines of Minnesota. The leaders of the mining company are among the most heartless, insensitive characters ever shown on the screen. Another 2005 film, The Constant Gardener, based on the novel by John le Carre, features a large drug maker that tests a dangerous tuberculosis drug in Africa and then connives in the murder of an activist. In the afterword of his book, Le Carre says, “By comparison with reality, my story is as tame as a holiday postcard.”
Think about it: how many movies have you seen where the hero is a business person? Two that I can think of are the small town banker Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and the William Holden character in Executive Suite (1954) who argues that “you can’t make men work for money alone – you starve their souls.” However, these are overwhelmed by so many others: Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Michael Mann’s, The Insider (1999), James Bridges’ China Syndrome (1979), Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) and my favorite business movie, Trading Places (1983) directed by James Landis. And look at Julia Roberts. In 1990 she starred in Pretty Woman as the prostitute with a heart of gold who wins the heart of a mover-and-shaker (Richard Gere) who abandons his previous strategy of taking over companies, decimating them and throwing thousands out of work. Ten years later, Roberts won an Academy Award for Erin Brockovich, the true story of a lowly law clerk who documented industrial poisoning by Pacific Gas & Electric.
Let’s face it, the public laps up entertainment where business guys are the heavies. Why? Because the stories they hear about companies like Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and Adelphia carry more weight with them than the preaching done in institutional advertising. Another way to say this is that old cliché: action speaks louder than words.
There are ironies galore in this “business in the movies” litany. Here’s Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media tycoon whose life could be the basis for a new Citizen Kane. News Corp. (which recently acquired the Wall Street Journal) bought Twentieth-Century Fox in 1985. Two years later it brought out Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, who screams “greed is good” into a portable telephone at the beach. The upcoming sequel, Money Never Sleeps, will once again star Michael Douglas.
Wall Street was not a gigantic seller at the box office but it became a cult hit in the financial world where many players saw Gekko as an admirable figure. In an interview last year in the New York Times, Michael Douglas said he wouldn’t mind if he never had “one more drunken Wall Street broker come up to me and say, ‘You’re the man!'”