Monday, September 15th, 2008...9:00 am

The 5 Greatest Financial Movies

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The financial world has a massive influence on the way we live our lives. But as a source for cinematic themes and plots, however, it is somewhat less influential. This may be due to the insular and humdrum view of the day-to-day workings of the financial world; or maybe it’s because we spend so much of our time worrying about money we don’t want to think about it during our leisure time.

Anyway, whatever the reason, there is certainly a paucity of movies based around financial themes (unless you pedantically include within this nebulous description every film in which the villain demands ten million dollars or the robbers fall out over the loot). Nevertheless we have trawled through our DVD collections to bring you a genre-spanning pick of our top financial flicks in no particular order. If you have any favourite movies on a financial theme that aren’t mentioned (or any that you hate) then let us know.

Rogue Trader (1999)

Anyone within the world of finance, or indeed anyone who picked up a newspaper in the mid-90s, will know something about this film’s plot, based as it is on the life of Nick Leeson, the infamous chancer who brought down Barings Bank.

Following Leeson’s career in the financial world, the film documents his exploits as the head of a futures trading team in Singapore. During which time, largely due to Leeson’s ambitious recklessness and Barings’s inadequate administration, he makes a series of unauthorised trades on the bank’s behalf. Though some of his initial trades make a profit for his unwitting employers, things predictably start going downhill as Leeson continually covers up the huge losses he generates.

Though the resulting film may lack suspense and excitement (which should have been abundant given the source material) it is held together by a decent central performance from Ewan McGregor (a Jedi mind-trick or two may have come in quite handy here!) and the cracking underlying story of what Stephen Fay calls, in his book The Collapse of Barings, “the biggest cock-up in the history of British banking”.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

This tense, stagy drama takes place almost entirely in the setting of a hard-nosed Chicago real estate office. The plot revolves around an ultimatum given to the office’s salesmen: in one week everyone but the two top sellers will be fired. Hindered by the office manager’s refusal to give up the best leads to those who don’t sell, what follows is an atmospheric and expletive-ridden study of characters under pressure in which threats are made, bribes are offered, desperate sales pitches fall flat and plots to steal the leads are formulated.

A world away from your local estate agent you may think. And you’re probably right in many ways: I’m pretty sure they don’t bring in the likes of Blake (memorably played by Alec Baldwin) to motivate their staff with gems such as: “I made $970,000 last year. How much you make? You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a @#£&. Good father? $%*£ you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here – close! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you @!£&sucker?”

The film’s premise may be unlikely in our era of workplace equality and zealous employee litigation, but as a portrayal of a high pressure sales environment where making money is the bottom line the film comes pretty close to realism. And now that the property bubble has burst some estate agent offices may soon seem a little bit more “Glengarry”.

Brewster’s Millions (1985)

The ultimate spending spree is something that most of us have daydreamt about at some point. For minor league baseball player Monty Brewster (Richard Pryor in one of his more successful big-screen outings), however, there are some major catches.

Having been left $300 million by a distant relative (more than enough cash to keep him in fully paid-up lloyds credit cards and virgin prepaid cards for the rest of his life), Brewster is told that, in order to receive the full amount, he must complete a challenge that is intended to teach him how to value his money and use it responsibly: spend $30m in 30 days. Seems easy enough so far. But, as is often the case, conditions apply: at the end of the month he must not have any new assets, he must not waste the money by buying and destroying expensive goods, he may only donate or gamble a small proportion and he must not tell anyone why he’s doing it.

A decent savings account or investment plan might have been a better way to teach Brewster how to manage his money wisely but, quite clearly, that wouldn’t make for a very entertaining film. Instead the film follows Brewster’s attempts to get rid of the money, which range from the unsurprising – throwing huge parties, pandering to an entourage – to the more imaginative: running for the New York Mayoral elections. A wise move considering the cash-gobbling nature of US political campaigning.

The Counterfeiters (2007)

The Counterfeiters (or Die Fälscher) tells the extraordinary story of Operation Bernhard – the secret Nazi plan to destabilise the British economy by flooding the country with fake bank notes. To carry out the complex operation the Nazi’s forced a large group of Jewish forgers to work from concentration camp workshops. The bank notes produced by these men under the constant threat of death are considered the most precise forgeries ever produced (examples of which can be seen here).

A classy, moving and gripping film, The Counterfeiters fictionalised account follows Salomon Sorowitsch, the master forger coerced into heading the counterfeiting team. The plight of Sorowitsch and the forgers is excellently handled, with a script that underlines the characters’ internal conflict: the desire for personal survival versus helping the Nazis win the war.

Wall Street (1987)

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”. If ever a single line of dialogue summed up the business ethics of the 1980s it is this one uttered by Michael Douglas as the ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

The film charts the ascent of Bud Fox (Wall Street’s other slightly ridiculous, animal-inspired character name), a young and ambitious stockbroker who is taken under Gekko’s wing and propelled into the big-time yuppie world of fast cars, fast women, dodgy deals and great big dirty piles of cash.

All the clichéd materialism and unscrupulous money-lust of the Thatcher/Reagan-era is encapsulated by Douglas’s Oscar-winning performance, and the film itself serves as a snapshot of a time when the predatory nature of the financial world was at its most conspicuous.



15 Comments

  • Great list! A few of these I haven’t seen yet and one I hadn’t heard of. Thanks.

    One I’d add, although it’s TV series and not a film, is Traders, a Canadian drama about a Bay Street Investment Bank.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115397/

    I only wish I could find more than season one on DVD.

  • Other People’s Money, starring Danny DeVito as Larry the Liquidator, should be on this list.

  • I think the Brewster’ Millions slot should have gone Trading Places (it had Murphy and Aykroid back when they were seriously funny). It has a similar happy-go-lucky ’80s air to Brewster’s Millions but was in most ways superior. It also embodies the kind of ‘Eat the Rich’ spirit of its late producer Aaron Russo (an underrated patriot).

  • And yet, even though you posted the video right above it, Michael Douglas never said “Greed is good”.

    Funny how we remember the quotable version of movie lines, even if they were never in the movie.

  • Boiler Room is fantastic as well. Vin Diesel is actually decent. He had a few good roles at first.

  • Your website forgot

    ‘Trading places”

  • Barbarians at the Gate doesn’t make the list and Brewsters Millions does.

    Sigh.

  • Good list. Some of these I haven’t seen and need to check out.

    Another good one that is virtually unheard of is “The Bank”. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0241223/

  • @gordon,

    maybe if you bothered watching the clip you would have noticed that Gekko dios say “greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed works…”

    funny how you just don’t remember anything from a movie although you just watched it.

  • I must also vote “Trading Places” as missing from this list. Cant beat FCOJ!!!!!

  • trading places is a needed addition also consideration to boiler room
    certainly a fine list of finacial films nice work
    thank you for including me
    http://www.stubbiesbaynation.com

  • Mr. Deeds? And I’m pretty shocked Trading Places wasn’t on here too. Good list though :)

  • My five: (not in order of importance)

    1. Mad Money
    2. Wall Street
    3. Trading Places
    4. Other Peoples Money
    5. Rogue Trader

  • I just finished the book “The Big Short, Inside The Doomsday Machine”. Now that will be a hell of a financial movie.

  • What about the Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith playing Chris Gardner a true rags to riches story!



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