Wall Street Guru: The new movie villain?

Jodie Foster’s latest foray into directing has resulted in a film, which, by Hollywood standards, appears to be surprisingly anti-capitalist. However, set in context, Money Monster is not the pioneer in this new era of American films denouncing the free-market liberalism which has long defined U.S economics. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession, this anti-Wall Street stance has gained considerable momentum, most notably popularised by the Occupy Wall Street movement and more recently, by the surge in support for Bernie Sanders, who is the embodiment of anti-establishment politics.

Prior to the economic recession, American films with a financial content, such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), championed the ‘greed is good’ ethos of Wall Street, glamourising the opulent lifestyles of traders and investment bankers. The voracious appetite for wealth, a common trait amongst those working in the financial sector, was portrayed as a positive attribute. Regarding Wall Street’s questionable business practices, these were depicted as part of a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality, perceived by many to be the main driver of U.S economic prosperity.

Conversely, post-economic crisis films, like The Big Short (2015) and Wolf of Wall Street (2013) convey a discernible level of disgust aimed at the excess of the lifestyles led by such ‘Wall Street wolves’. The pre-crisis Gordon Gekkos are the present day ‘money monsters’ and their hunger for wealth is now depicted as a catastrophic flaw, rather than a desirable characteristic. This is evident in Money Monster, where Lee Gates (George Clooney), the fast-talking, pompous television host of a financial programme, is held hostage by Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), an anguished, disillusioned investor who lost all of his savings after following a piece of advice he heard on Gates’ show.

Money Monster is noteworthy for its masterful manipulation of the viewer’s emotions. Oscillating between the genres of drama and thriller, the film toys with the audience’s sympathy in such a way that by the end, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the true villain. Granted, in any film saturated with so many anti-heroes, this would be a challenging task but the complex dynamics dictating the relationships between the protagonists in Money Monster make the film unique in this sense. Another reason to watch Money Monster is the performances. This is Clooney’s fourth film with Julia Roberts – who plays the producer of the television programme – and watching the two film veterans engage in their familiar, quick-fire repartee is always enjoyable. However, O’Connell’s performance is arguably the highlight of the film, especially his ability to hold his own alongside an actor such as Clooney, whose calculated combination of charm and arrogance usually overpowers the performances of less experienced actors.

Content-wise, I was slightly disappointed with the film, as a student of economics. A common issue for films with a focus on finance is the complexity of the economic content used in the plot: too basic and it appears unrealistic because the viewer feels as the explanation offered in the film is too ‘simple’ to be relevant in real life and so the film is regarded as disingenuous, or, worse, factually inaccurate. On the other end of the spectrum, the use of highly advanced economic vocabulary may be off-putting, confusing the viewer, who ultimately loses interest in the plot. Unlike Money Monster, which presented an overly simplistic explanation of financial issues, films like The Big Short and Wolf of Wall Street  overcame this issue by not underestimating the audience’s capacity for understanding complex economic concepts. Instead, they explained the content in layman’s terms by using analogies common in everyday life.

Considering the film’s thematic focus on class tensions which have been exacerbated by economic policies favouring big business, Money Monster does not exercise much subtlety regarding its political agenda. The film can be viewed as a promotion of Bernie Sanders’ anti-big business ideals. However, that interpretation should not distract from the technical merits of the film, such as the well-written, multi-faceted characters, strong performances and the seamless integration of two genres.

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