Dispatch July 2009

Hollywood Does the Financial Crisis

From The International to Drag Me to Hell to Public Enemies, the movie industry is turning to the financial meltdown for inspiration—with uneven results.

At the beginning of the late-Depression-era classic comedy Sullivan’s Travels, spoiled rich-boy director John L. Sullivan, announces he wants to live rough for a while so he can make a searing drama about the poor.  His handlers try to dissuade him, but Sullivan insists he has an obligation to illuminate a country where “people [are] slaughtered like sheep.”  Amid the clamor over Sullivan’s safety, one of his handlers advances an idea about viewers’ tastes: “Maybe,” in a country stricken by the downturn, the advisor suggests, audiences “want to forget about that stuff.”  His point, and the lesson Sullivan eventually learns through his ensuing series of misadventures is that Hollywood directors aren’t meant to illuminate society—and that audiences don’t necessarily want them to.

Just as John Sullivan did 68 years ago, directors and studios today are turning to the perfidy and meltdown of the financial system for inspiration—and as a hook to get audiences in the door.  The results so far are uneven.  This time around, Hollywood has attempted to spice up its banking stories with everything from international conspiracies to goat demons, to Tommy Guns. The offerings include one soporific clunker, one engaging thrill-ride, and one terrific biopic.  But none of them comes close to explaining or illuminating the financial crisis that’s touched so many Americans’ lives, driving them to movie theaters in increasing numbers as they search for cheap entertainment and escape.

The first of the new meltdown movies, The International, released in February, is the most boring film I’ve ever seen about arms dealing, political assassination, and corruption.  The plot centers on Clive Owens’ and Naomi Watts’ investigation of an evil bank, loosely based on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (the Pakistani institution that was shuttered in 1991 amidst charges of fraud, money laundering, and setting up accounts for Abu Nidal, the founder of Fatah).

Not content with that already impressive rap sheet, The International’s naughty bank offers some of its clients not toasters, but Chinese missiles retrofitted with Italian guidance technology, when they agree to open accounts.  The movie’s original sin lies in making the bank blandly evil.  The story of how the financial industry got caught up in the collective madness of endlessly extending and repackaging debt is a far more interesting and subtle story than the standard supervillian-who-destablizes-the-world-for gain formula, but The International has no interest in telling it, nor has it much interest in actual finance. 

“You control the debt, you control everything,” a character warns Owen and Watts at one point.  “You find this upsetting, yes?  But this is the essence of the banking industry, to make us all, whether we be nations or individuals, slaves to debt.”

Well, sort of.  The lecture about the power and evil of debt sounds apt as credit dries up and people worldwide find they cannot pay what they owe.  But the bankers in The International are theoretically smart for having figured out that becoming the bank of choice for wanna-be dictators and rogue states is a solid bet: warmongers need weapons, and they need credit with which to buy them.  The bank does some damage to the countries where it finances small wars, but at least it isn’t generating questionable debts that may never be repaid and turning around and repackaging them.  If only home lenders and the investors who traded on mortgages had been as savvy.

By contrast, the mortgage bankers in Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi’s highly entertaining return to horror, bear some resemblance to their real-world counterparts, and the film’s premise, that people will cling to their real estate even after they cannot pay for it (or even after goat demons rise through their floors) has some emotional resonance for Americans facing foreclosure.  The movie centers on the torments visited on a softhearted young loan officer named Christine after, angling for a promotion, she turns down an aged gypsy for a third extension on her mortgage payments.  The old lady lays down one hell of a curse on her tormentor, raising the question of how a woman who can summon demons on command ever falls short of money.

But despite the slightly more realistic financial circumstances, Drag Me to Hell still gets the mortgage crisis wrong.  There’s something funny but queasy about watching a hair-pulling-stapler-wielding fight between Christine and the gypsy in a parking garage.  Who doesn’t like seeing a victim of foreclosure fight back?  But while Christine isn’t exactly the bad guy—she’s acting under orders and on bank policy—she’s not a hero, either.  I found myself sympathizing not with her, but with her rival for the promotion, “someone who’s not afraid to crunch the numbers and make the tough decisions,” as Christine’s boss says.  The guy also later turns out to be a thief and corporate schemer, but notwithstanding those less attractive traits, he sounds like a better candidate for the job.  If more mortgage officers had made those tough decisions, and regretfully but firmly denied loans to decrepit gypsies, sporadically-employed fruit pickers, and even New York Times financial reporters with whopping alimony payments, fewer people would be losing their homes, and fewer traders would have been gleefully swapping securities based on their risks. 

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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