Surowiecki on business in film

Larry Ribstein —  4 October 2010

James Surowiecki, the New Yorker’s financial columnist, discusses “Money Never Sleeps” and “The Social Network.” Along the way he briefly recaps the history of business on film, citing the definitive work on the subject: 

The law professor Larry Ribstein, in his paper “Wall Street and Vine,” calls the late eighties “the golden era of anti-capitalist films.”

Surowiecki mentions many of the films discussed in my paper. He makes an observation with which I wholeheartedly agree:

[T]he reality of business life is all but absent from American films. One might argue that it’s too difficult to represent a complex system like capitalism in the typical hundred-minute movie script, but Hollywood has ignored even inherently dramatic stories. In particular, there have been few films about America’s most significant entrepreneurs. People like Henry Ford and Sam Walton remade American culture and American society, but Hollywood has dealt with such figures rarely, and then typically as fictionalized archetypes—most obviously, in “Citizen Kane”—rather than as figures worthy of real scrutiny. Watching “Wall Street,” you’d think that business is a Hollywood obsession. But it’s really Hollywood’s biggest blind spot.

By contrast, Surowiecki notes, “The Social Network”

represents a rare attempt to take business seriously, and to interrogate the blend of insight, ruthlessness, creativity, and hubris required to start a successful company. Hollywood has made good films about money, loyalty, trust, and organization before—but most of them have been about gangsters.

Surowiecki concludes by suggesting “The Social Network” could start a trend of serious filmmaking about business.  Frankly I doubt that Hollywood will suddenly reform in this way, particularly at a time when it is generally losing the art of serious filmmaking (this is moving to television). 

In any event, I’m not sure I would welcome the trend.  My theory of why filmmakers don’t like capitalists (see, e.g., the above article and my recent Forbes.com column, for example) focuses on filmmakers’ deep-grained attitudes, which are unlikely to change.  So if Hollywood is going to continue to see capitalists as evil, better it continues to do so in a cartoonish way.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

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