I loved this column by the ever-stimulating George Will, comparing "American Gangster" and "The Godfather":
In spite of its self-conscious coldbloodedness, the "Godfather" movie
is sentimental. Its picture of Don Corleone judiciously administering
the common law of gangsterdom is about as accurate a portrayal of
organized crime as Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" is an accurate
portrayal of the unwashed brutes who made the Middle Ages a good epoch
not to have lived in.
"American Gangster," like "The Godfather," invites viewers to admire
business acumen for its own sake -- when Lucas was brought down, the
government seized assets worth $250 million -- and entices viewers into
the moral vertigo of forgetting the human carnage among users of the
high-quality heroin that Lucas's organizational skills enabled him to
sell cheap. But the movie, to its credit, repeatedly and abruptly halts
its manipulation of viewers by roughly yanking them back to the reality
of suppurating needle sores.
In "The Godfather," the visible victims were, so to speak, all in
the family; they were criminals who had chosen their line of work
because they liked it. In "American Gangster," the visible victims
include the crying infant on the filthy mattress, next to the mother
who has nodded off on a heroin high.
The labored and familiar facets of "American Gangster" -- facile
cynicism about commercial practices and "family values" -- echo "The
Godfather." The realism of "American Gangster," which is the more
mature movie, is its own.
It is hard for me to see any movie compared favourably with "The Godfather", but I was glad to have the column remind me of the epigraph from Mario Puzo's novel (hat-tip to Balzac): "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." I have an ongoing beef with Hollywood and with popular culture in general for the way it sees commerce as kind of lightly regulated criminality. Mafia, General Electric...what's the difference, really?
Here is a piece I did for The Atlantic on the subject:
Seen a movie lately? Watched television or read a newspaper? The culture that speaks to Americans, and hence to the Western world, radiates suspicion of free enterprise—cordial and restrained, as a rule, but dubious nonetheless. Yes, the system does work, says this culture, and there appears to be no alternative. But what a shame this is, it continues, because capitalism rewards our worst and most selfish instincts. “Greed is good” may stock the shelves, but is somewhat less than inspiring.
Popular culture understands that the market economy creates material prosperity, albeit for some more than others. It seeks out and worships business celebrities. But at the same time it sees the system as spiritually—and politically—corrupting. As viewed from Hollywood, workers are usually downtrodden, bosses are usually grasping, consumers are usually gulled, and shadowy global finance is always calling the geopolitical shots. We manage to prosper, most of us, but this system of ours is not very noble.
What is most striking, so far as the movies’ treatment of capitalism goes, is not the hostility of films whose main purpose is actually to indict corporate wickedness (Wall Street, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, The Insider, The Constant Gardener, and so forth). It is the idea of routine, reckless corporate immorality—maintained as though this premise were inoffensive, uncontroversial, and hardly worthy of comment—that drives movies whose principal interest lies elsewhere, whether in the human drama of contemporary geopolitics (Syriana, to cite a recent instance), knockabout comedy (Fun with Dick & Jane), children’s fantasy (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), star-crossed romance (In Good Company), or, classically, in some dystopian near or distant future (Alien, The Terminator, Blade Runner, Robocop, and many others).
The point is not that such movies, or the culture more generally, argue that capitalism is evil. Just the opposite: it is that they so often merely assume, innocently and expecting to arouse no skepticism, that capitalism is evil.
And another, if you want more, that I did for National Journal:
I have long been intrigued by the way films deal with capitalism in general and with Big Business in particular. For the past few decades I have been collecting movies that cast Big Business in a good light. Strictly speaking, I should say, I don't yet have an actual collection, because in 30 years I haven't been able to find one. (If you know of an instance, I'd love to hear from you. There might be a prize.)
In the meantime, what I have culled from the countless movies I have seen that innocently and unthinkingly cast private enterprise in a bad light are a few dozen that do this in a fresh or comically incompetent way. And my newest award in that category goes to Man of the Year.
The film's plot twist relies on the fact that a private company has just been granted a national monopoly to install and operate electronic voting machines. It turns out that the programming (or something) is broken, and that the vote counts are all skewed. A sweet blonde working for the company discovers this -- the wrong man is going to be elected! -- and alerts her superiors. She naively expects them to correct the fault. (Obviously, she doesn't see many movies.) Instead, they wage a campaign of intimidation, reckless physical assault, and forcible injection of narcotics (if this weren't a comedy, there would presumably have been torture) to fuddle her brain and shut her up. All in a day's work for the head office. In case this should seem at all far-fetched, a character in a dark suit radiating sinister intelligence (Jeff Goldblum) lays out the irresistible corporate logic behind this self-evidently suicidal cover-up. As far as market forces are concerned, it all makes sense -- and what else matters really?
The search for a movie that quietly regards business as an honorable undertaking goes on. This blog is open for nominations.
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