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Podcast | Digging Deeper - A cinematic take on the world of business: Part 2

On Digging Deeper, we take a look at six films – feature and documentary – that spoke about the business of business.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

Harish Puppala | Rakesh Sharma

Moneycontrol Contributors

Bazaar, a film about money, ambition, power and the stock market is out and not exactly setting the box office on fire. Here then are some alternatives for you to enjoy from the comfort of your home. On Digging Deeper, we bring to you part two of an assortment of documentary and feature films that star Business in a leading role. (For Part 1, featuring ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,’ ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ ‘Margin Call,’ ‘Capitalism: A Love Story,’ etc, go here.)

We understand you are missing all the glorious breaks you had over Diwali, and that it can be a bit difficult to get back into the grind, but here, let these films draw you back in.


We also understand the fragile nature of your pockets and the many holes Diwali (and its crackers) may have caused in them, so skip the cinema (and its popcorn and burgers and colas) and watch these instead at home, in your pyjamas, in bed. Presenting Moneycontrol’s own Film List, this is Rakesh Sharma.

The Corporation (2003)

Corporations – they are people too. No, really. As far as US law is concerned, corporations are people. They are pervasive, and in an almost Orwellian fashion, omnipotent. They have the power to change governments, nations, entire cultures and, sometimes, even ruin them. (Here’s looking at you, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.)

C’mon, admit it – you know you want an iPhone and a fancy car way more than you want to help any charity. It’s not entirely your fault either – that is the power of relentless messaging via advertisements. And who’s behind this? Sure, dopey advertisement guys who all think they are Don Draper, for one (Truth Bomb: you are not). But, at the root is a company with an admirable commitment to its bottomline. Corporations and corporate excess are the hallmarks of our times – read The Billionaire Raj for a sense of how this pans out in India, and what crony capitalism does to a country. From robber barons to Bollygarchs, it’s all about the Benjamins, the Lizzies, and the Gandhis. Pretty sure the Mahatma would be turning in his grave if he had one.

This growth of corporations from their fairly innocuous beginnings to, at the risk of sounding clichéd, nefarious behemoths that need to be kept in check with things like anti-trust laws is the subject of the fascinating 2003 documentary, The Corporation. This documentary is based on Joel Bakan’s book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Mark Achbar, the man at the helm, has fine anti-establishment credentials, having helped make the influential documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, with Peter Wintonick. Here, Achbar joins forces with co-director Jennifer Abbott and Bakan to reveal the consequences of the overarching influence of corporations. At its heart, The Corporation is a critical inquiry into the business organisation’s inner workings, impacts and possible outcomes.

Case studies, confessions and anecdotes reveal the tensions and impulses that drive decision making in several corporate and anti-corporate dramas. Achbar and crew interviewed 40 subjects - CEOs and top-flight executives from across many industries: oil, pharmaceuticals, computers, tyres, manufacturing, PR, advertising and undercover marketing. The makers balance what can seem like a clichéd diatribe with a nod to those striving to make a difference. Like the earnest Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, who wants to stop the “plunder” of the world and focus on sustainable production.

In sum, if we go beyond the litany of corporate sins, The Corporation is a compelling examination of how we arrived at Big Pharma, Big Tobacco - Big Business, as it were - and what they do to stay that Big. And yeah, it has Noam Chomsky in it. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t like corporations.

Also Listen: Digging Deeper - A cinematic take on the world of business: Part 1

Something Ventured (2011)

Just under sixty years ago, a small group of men in California took a chance and began financing a handful of inexperienced entrepreneurs and their vague, unproven visions.

They backed a kid Nolan Bushnell, who foresaw handheld video games. They saw potential in a guy named Herb who would go on to be associated with this company named Genentech. Nolan is now known for Atari. And you might have heard of this guy, Steve Jobs - something about apples and personal computers, apparently.

The 2011 documentary, Something Ventured, explores the lives of these people who risked their own money to back the companies they truly believed in, during the early 1960s when the venture capital industry was just beginning to take shape. The documentary traces the exciting growth of the VC industry over 30 years.

It features interviews with legendary investors such as Arthur Rock who funded Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple and Teledyne; Tom Perkins, founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Bill Draper, the founder of Sutter Hill Ventures.

The perspectives of entrepreneurs are portrayed through commentary from Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, and Robert Campbell, the founder of PowerPoint and Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco.

Like most new ideas, venture capital attracted a bunch of skeptics when it first took off. The filmmakers noted that early venture capitalists struggled to convince companies to work with them. “We called out, and nobody called in,” was how the early VCs recalled it. VCs were an unknown option and needed to go out, door to door, and find people with good ideas. Just imagine that VCs chasing down ideas instead of the other way around.

According to the National Venture Capital Association in America, VC-backed companies now employ more than 12 million people and generate almost trillions in revenue. In 2008, venture-backed companies represented the equivalent of 21 percent of American GDP.

If you love the legends and real-life stories that mark the very start of the tech industry that now determines how we spend our every waking, and sleeping, hour, you’re going to enjoy this very inspirational documentary. And you’ll love the anecdotes about the misses. Like not buying 30 percent of Apple for $50,000 because the founders were too dirty.

Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

‘Barbarians at the Gate’ is a 1993 made-for-tv movie that never saw a theatrical release. And yet, it is one of the best movies if you’re looking for a film that delves into the business world while still being entertaining.

‘Barbarians at the Gate’ takes a humorous look at actual events in a big 1980s takeover war. The standouts of this underrated movie are the seasoned performances – especially from the lead actor James Garner, an actor who isn’t a huge movie star but one you’ve seen around for a long time – as well as the direction.

His character is the quintessential modern man – he wants to make money and a lot of it. On the other hand, he pretends it doesn’t define him. Or, at the least, wants to believe that. One line of his stands out: “I don't plan to be homeless -- or planeless either for that matter.”

The film is based on a book, Barbarians at the Gate, about the leveraged buyout (LBO) of RJR Nabisco written by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. That’s an actual, real-life buyout, by the way.

James Garner plays F. Ross Johnson, the CEO of RJR Nabisco, a rags-to-riches kinda guy. He went from being a hardworking paperboy in a small city in Canada to a high flying CEO in New York.

So the plot goes like this: Johnson decides to take the tobacco and food company private after receiving advance news of the likely failure of the company's smokeless cigarette. The smokeless cigarette was intended to finally boost the company's stock price.

Facing failure in an expensive project, he decides to deflect criticism from shareholders by raising the money to buy the company himself.

Johnson's bid for the company is opposed by two of the pioneers of the leveraged buyout, Henry Kravis and his cousin. Kravis feels betrayed when Johnson initially discusses doing the LBO with him and then takes the potentially lucrative deal to another firm. Johnson might have pulled it off, except for a couple of green sharks who catch a whiff of possible profit. And the bidding war begins. And the inevitable happens – creative manipulation and chicanery in a world where the stakes are high. We’re talking billion dollar stakes here.

This is a satirical take on American businesses in general. It is educative while also poking holes in all the clichés. And there’s no self-effacing, atoning spiel from the capitalists here.

Barbarians At The Gate doesn’t take itself too seriously. No Oliver Stone-y preachiness here. The ending is deliciously ironic. Johnson loses his job and receives a severance package. Of 23 million dollars. After taxes. The film ends with a shot of the house he is left with. A mansion on Palm Beach.

The Insider (1999)

‘The Insider,’ starring Russell Crowe, in what was probably his best acting role, is one of the most compelling, and disturbing, portrayals of the machinations of the tobacco industry. This is the tale of a man who decided to disclose to the world what the major tobacco companies knew and concealed - the dangers of their products. This film is an adaptation of an article about real life whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist and researcher for a tobacco company, Brown and Williamson who turns whistleblower. Wigand is fired, he claims, after he objected to B&W intentionally making their cigarettes more addictive.

Soon, Wigand is contacted by opportunistic media men, including Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, a producer for 60 Minutes who worked closely with a journalist Mike Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer. Bergman arranges for Wigand to be interviewed for an expose on the tobacco industry.

Wigand is reluctant to reveal any information to ensure his severance package remains intact. But, he is influenced by the TV producer to step it up.

Meanwhile, Wigand receives death threats including a bullet in his mailbox. Wigand’s explosive interview almost goes on air until, at the last minute, B&W threatens the TV network with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit, courtesy Wigand’s confidentiality agreement with his old employers.

The network’s boss cans the interview and investigators probe Wigand background and publish a 500-page report. Meanwhile, Wigand’s marriage has fallen apart. And the Wall Street Journal wants to write an article questioning Jeffrey Wigand’s credibility.

Left high and dry after losing everything, Wigand holds Bergman, the producer, responsible for the mess his life has become.

Bergman is ordered to take a mandatory vacation as the TV network airs a heavily edited version. Finally, a frustrated Bergman goes to the New York Times with his side of this sordid tale. The newspaper takes the TV network to the cleaners and the Wall Street Journal puts out an article dismissing the 500-page dossier on Wigand as deliberate character assassination.

To atone for their sins, and to salvage some semblance of credibility, the TV network airs the full original piece including Wigand’s interview. Meanwhile, Bergman resigns, utterly disgusted by the duplicity and kowtowing to the corporate pressure that destroyed a whistleblower’s life.

Though it wasn’t a box office success story, ‘The Insider’ was acclaimed for powerhouse performances and direction. It was nominated for seven Oscars. All things considered, ‘The Insider’ is an intriguing look at how powerful corporations really are and how speaking out against corporations can destroy lives.

Real life has been kinder to Jeffrey Wigand, who now works with several institutions and governments around the world on tobacco control policies.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

The Hudsucker Proxy is a 1994 comedy, no, a wicked satire made by the Coen brothers starring ol’ blue eyes Paul Newman alongside Tim Robbins and Frances McDormand. This was the first time the Coen brothers went with big stars for their film.

Set in the 1950s, The Hudsucker Proxy is about a clueless schmuck who is made the president of a company by the manipulative board of a large corporation for less than respectable reasons.

Norville Barnes, played by Tim Robbins, wanders into Hudsucker Industries in New York for a job in the mail room. He’s a nobody, headed nowhere but for one idea - a children's toy. As he walks into Hudsucker, the president of the company, Waring Hudsucker, is making an exit – from the window of boardroom on the forty-fourth floor.

Hudsucker's suicide triggers panic. Company rules state that since he died without having a will or living relatives, his majority share must be sold on the open market. And then the games begin. Determined to devalue the stock so that the current board members can buy it back, Chief exec Sidney J. Mussberger, played by Paul Newman, concocts a plan destroy the Hudsucker reputation by choosing a complete incompetent for the top seat. And he runs into Norville Barnes.

The Coen brothers pull almost no punches as they satirise big business, lampooning the scheming and the intrigues. For instance, when the company observes a moment’s silence for expired the ex-president of the Hudsucker company, the brief stoppage of work demands an appropriate deduction from all paychecks.

Once he is the president, Barnes decides to have the company produce his toy. Mussburger goes along with this as he expects it to be a flop, further dropping the stock price. Barnes's idea is the hula-hoop, a product that becomes a raging big success and pushes Hudsucker stock prices to new heights. Mussberger then decides to frame Barnes, accusing him of stealing his idea from the elevator operator. Barnes has a meltdown and is declared mentally incompetent.

Now, it is Barnes’s turn to make the same exit as the earlier president – the shortcut from the 44th-floor window. Then follows a parody of the countless maudlin enlightenment moments in movies. Our man slips from the 44th-floor window but gets stuck on a large clock on the side of the building. Time comes to a stop and the ex-president comes to him as an angel. Yes, an angel! We find out that the angel guy had left 51 percent of his stock to the next president of the company. So now, Barnes is rich but has to stop falling the rest of the way to his deathsplat. He eventually survives. And the cigar-chomping Mussberger loses his mind and is packed off to a sanitarium. Barnes then releases his new product idea – the Frisbee.

Paul Newman, cigar permanently in his mouth, plays the archetypal business-minded villain to perfection in this send up of pretentious business morés. Tim Robbins is great here unlike his usual understated self. Lots of physical comedy which we rarely get to watch him perform.

The Hudsucker Proxy was made with a budget of 25 million dollars. That’s 42 million in today’s money. And it was an absolute turkey. It made less than 3 million at the box office. Despite this flop, Tim Robbins would go on to have a little-known film you may have heard of – The Shawshank Redemption. 1994 was quite a year for Mr Robbins. A hilarious satire and an inspiring, melancholic tale showcasing the full range of his skills.

Maxed Out (2007)

‘Maxed Out’ is an insightful 2007 documentary that flew rather under the radar. That is unfortunate, because ‘Maxed Out’ is a good, hard look at how debt-ridden the United States really is.

As the title suggests, this documentary focuses on the abusive practices that were rampant in the American credit card industry. When I say abusive, I’m being polite. I mean usury.

Anyway, back to Maxed Out. Why do people borrow when they do not have the wherewithal to pay back the money? That said, why do financial institutions find it fit to charge exorbitant interest rates?

The film opens with a scene of Las Vegas. A real estate agent shows off new mansions and talks up the ways in which they are financed. People purchasing these houses in upscale enclaves with pretentious Italian names expect to have their gated communities patrolled by guards, she says.

The film also recounts the story of a woman living under crippling debt, who then disappears rather than deal with the shame. Sure, we could blame the spenders, but turns out that’s not the case entirely. The director of the movie, James Scurlock gets a few debt investors talking about inside contacts at a company named Providion admitting that the company often held and even shredded payment checks in order to cash in on their lucrative late fees. Providion was later pulled up for its malpractices but many predatory practices do continue in the industry.

The film notes that US government is also guilty of the habit of 'surfing,' or paying off debt with more debt. Scurlock outlines how various Presidents, from Reagan to Bush…the funny Bush…have dipped into Social Security money to pay off other debt and says the United States spends more on interest than on homeland security, education and healthcare combined. What was once the richest country on earth currently owes more to foreign nations than it is owed. Which is giving Donald Trump a headache even as he tries to go all protectionist and tax China. The United States currently owes China about 1 trillion dollars and cannot afford to play too many funny mind games.

Maxed Out is really effective at bringing to light the psychological effect that this industry has had on people. Poor people, especially blacks, are conned into signing on with a new mortgage company for lower payments only to discover that their payments are now much higher, and they are now in danger - of losing their homes and of public humiliation. Public humiliation is a tactic often used by debt collectors. The movie talks to two women whose kids hung themselves because they couldn’t deal with spiralling debt.

Maxed Out ends on a sobering note, counting out America’s debt in 2007 - 10 million Americans filed for bankruptcy between 1994 and 2004. Each American family owes $90000 to the national debt. The average American family owes over $9000 in credit card debt. Also, apparently using the song Money by Pink Floyd too many times can really convey the mean opportunism of banks. Uh, no. It doesn’t. It just ruins a great song.

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First Published on Nov 12, 2018 06:46 pm
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