Ed’s Note: This article includes spoilers for Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Counselor, and Money Monster. These spoilers do not invade each section.
1975: Dog Day Afternoon
In 1972, John Wojtowicz robbed a bank.
12 hours later, he was history.
Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Wojtowicz’s story, Dog Day Afternoon, came at the trail end of a recession that lasted from 1973-1975. America had hit a wall after Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from the gold standard in 1971. This was followed by the start of globalization as third world countries emerged as major players in the steel industry, causing a steel crisis where many parts of America to struggle as factories closed forming the Rust Belt. And then the 1973 Oil Crisis hit, where OAPEC declared an oil embargo that caused oil prices to quadruple. As the stock market crashed, unemployment rose, reaching its peak in May of 1975. While people were going out of work, and wages were stagnating, prices were still going up.
In 1974, Patty Hearst (heiress to the Hearst fortune) was “kidnapped” by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and participated in bank robberies while advocating for the redistribution of wealth through food to poor communities. She, either willingly or through brainwashing, denounced her family, her fortune, and even her given name, assuming the name “Tania the Guerilla.” The radical peace, love, and happiness movement had failed, and it was time for more radical tactics.
In Dog Day Afternoon, John Wojtowicz’s parallel, Sonny, is robbing First Brooklyn Savings Bank to take care of other people. He was divorced with children and needed money to continue supporting them. His new wife, Leon Shermer, was a pre-op transgendered woman, and Sonny needed money for her sex change. Sonny is broke, desperate, and needs to get money from a system that has started shoving money upwards.
But, even the banks are out of money. All of the money was sucked up by the system, taken away just before Sonny attempted the heist. All that’s left is $1,100. Sonny is going to settle for Traveler’s checks and burn the ledgers to hide his theft, but the burning of the ledgers sends a smoke signal that alerts the authorities and brings down a media circus.
At first, Sonny holds the bank hostage. Then the hostages become willing participants in their own hostage situation. A massive crowd forms with the news cameras, all supporting the men who had the balls to take back the system. Sonny even rallies the crowd by shouting “Attica! Attica!,” the rallying cry from 1971’s Attica Prison Insurrection that stemmed from inhumane treatment and overcrowding. And yet, the police are dead set against Sonny because he is breaking the law by robbing a bank.
Lumet’s direction pits people against the system that represses them. Sonny might be a queer man (an outsider by sexuality) but the general public can rally around him and his actions because he is taking action against a system that oppresses them all. The police are here to enforce that system and become Dog Day Afternoon‘s enemy. The media are just here to profit from the ensuing fight. They’re an amoral force that perpetuates the struggle, not from any moral sense of duty but out of a need for ratings.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor in Sarasota, FL, shot herself on live television.
After the recession ended in 1975, things didn’t improve rapidly. Hell, they hardly improved at all. Even as the unemployment rate decreased, systemic discontent decreased in the years following. The period of inflation never came with a period of equal deflation. Prices were still high and climbing, including that of oil which never went down, even after the embargo. A new standard was set, and regular people lost.
People were feeling even more politically disenfranchised than in the early 1970s. Watergate and Vietnam had wreaked havoc on faith in the political system. In 1976, Gerald Ford and the Republicans were ousted in favor of Jimmy Carter and the New Democrats. Little did they know that these actions would do no good in stopping the progress of wealth inequality. Robert Reich pointed to the feminist movement, fighting for the right for women to have equal footing in the work space, as one of the reasons the public didn’t notice the screws tightening. Women having the right to work spawned the popularization of the two-income household, allowing wages to continue to stagnate.
Sidney Lumet’s follow-up film to Dog Day Afternoon was even more aggressive in nature. Network wondered why American society was going to shit, and pointed to television. Not just television, but the forces behind television. Howard Beale stands in for Christine Chubbuck, a long time news anchor about to be fired due to the low ratings of his news program. UBS, the fictional television station, has a rising executive who wants to turn the news into a ratings games. When Beale loses it and threatens to kill himself on live television, screaming about the various ills of society. After a long night in the rain, he tells his audience to scream “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” which they do in a cathartic sense of relief. That is, until he scores his own sensational news show with psychics and gossip. His new corporate news show repeats the line every episode, co-opting a national anger into a commercial and corporate catch phrase; a statement of societal rebelliousness becomes a marketing tool that targets the disenfranchised.
All is well until the ghost of neoliberal globalization rears its ugly head in the form of Ned Beatty’s CEO Ned Jansen, head of the Communications Corporation of America, owner of UBS. Beatty had taken to the airwaves to stop a buyout of CCA by the Saudis, citing the fear of foreign influence in modern news media. Jansen presents Beale with an apocalyptic vision of the future where there are no national borders, where the governments are no longer about Russia and China and America and Saudi Arabia, but GE, Apple, AT&T, and Shell. Where fewer and fewer people control the means of wealth, and the global population all similarly exist under a new structure of corporate rule. Humans count less and less, while profits rule everything. And then the producers of UBS hire a radical left wing group to assassinate the soothsayer, kicking off The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.
2013: The Counselor
Throughout the 2000s, Greg Lippman mobilized hedge funds to bet against the housing market. In 2007, the global economy crashed.
The American economy had spent a decade recovering from an economic depression caused by the bursting of the internet bubble. Technological fly-by-nights would launch IPOs by overinflating their worth, and when their worth was found to be nil, they dropped like a stone. As the economy was recovering, a newly deregulated loan industry was making bogus loans by preying on poor people who couldn’t pay the money back. As home owners defaulted on their loans, and the banks started repossessing houses en masse, the people who saw the problem made a truck-load of money on the backs of the people who could least afford it.
Meanwhile, classic American companies were sinking under buckets of debt and the cost of competition under a global economy. As a case study, Hostess went through two bankruptcy situations that finally ended in 2012 with the company folding and different brands being sold off to various other companies. In 2004, Hostess was $100m in debt, partly due to lagging sales of their sugary artificial snacks, partly due to mismanagement, and partly due to price stagnation. They declared bankruptcy, entering a restructuring period that lasted until 2009, culminating in even more debt and a majority ownership by a holding company. For their part, the unions agreed to millions of dollars in cuts, and lost thousands of jobs. Just three years later, Hostess had stopped paying into the pensions altogether, which were now $1b in debt, and demanding even deeper cuts in union pay. Meanwhile, the previous CEO had tried renegotiating for a seven figure salary with a $2m golden parachute. In the end, people lost their jobs and many pensions were cut (and retrieved by the government).
On its surface, The Counselor is a movie about a drug deal gone wrong. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy warp the genre formula into a series of extended monologues and focus on a character who could charitably be considered an investor. The titular unnamed counselor is seeking to make a quick buck by investing in an international drug deal orchestrated by unseen drug cartels. Every aspect of the deal is negotiated by secondary characters who occasionally give reports to the counselor before things go wrong and people lose their lives.
The monologues are designed to warn the counselor about the inherent dangers of his various investments. When he’s buying a diamond from a European dealer, that dealer tells him about the deadly history of the blood diamond, hinting at the unseen risk people took and violence people committed so he could have a shiny jewel on his fiancee’s finger. A later conversation would indict the consumers of kiddie porn who weren’t actually molesting children, pumping money and need into a system that harmed people.
The moral of The Counselor? The investor has blood on their hands. If people are losing pensions, wages are being suppressed, and livelihoods being devastated, people buying stocks and profiting off other people’s misery are at fault. The logic goes, if you invest in Bank of America, who invests in the Dakota Pipeline, and that pipeline breaks, then you are culpable for having profited from the poisoning of that stream.
2016: Money Monster
So far that I know, nobody has held Jim Cramer at gunpoint. Yet.
But, in 2014, Cynk Technologies was a company with no revenue, one employee, and was valued at $4.5b. It’s stock went from less than a penny a share all the way up to over $20/share, only to plumment back down into the pennies. The whole thing seems to be a result from various high volume stock schemes where companies will buy up stock, artificially inflate demand, and then dump the stock when they feel it has gone beyond its potential. Cynk Technologies, based in Belize, should not have been valued with more worth than Urban Outfitters.
It’s been 8 years since the financial crisis that brought the world to its knees. The Dow Jones has done little besides sky rocket, and the economy has come back for those at the top of the economic ladder. Though much of the media pushes the story that the economy has made no less than a full comeback with a low unemployment rate and an skyrocketing Dow, people on the ground feel more desperate than ever. The majority of the recovery has gone to the top 1%, and the growing income inequality that took off back in the 1970s hasn’t abated.
Jodie Foster’s 2016 film Money Monster was largely dismissed for being a knock off of both Network and Dog Day Afternoon. In a few ways, she, and the three credited screenwriters, have updated the stories to reflect a new economy. In others, the movie is dumber than the previous three.
Two weeks prior to the events in the movie, Lee Gates, playing a Jim Cramer knockoff, had previously recommended a sure bet on an investment in a capital company. Because of bad investments from a “rogue” automated investment program, that company went bankrupt and investors lost their shirts, including Kyle Budwell, who had followed Gates’ advice. In retaliation, Budwell takes Lee Gates and his television show hostage by strapping a bomb vest onto Gates and holding the crew hostage with a gun.
Budwell’s hostile takeover of Lee Gates’ show to demand answers for the company’s failure reflects Sonny’s bank robbery-turned-hostage scenario from Dog Day Afternoon. Sonny has lost his job, lost his life savings, and has a baby on the way. Later, the hostage scenario goes on the road in a parade lined by gawking cheering fans of the unlikely hero. Unlike Dog Day‘s Sonny, Budwell isn’t just seeking money. Sonny refuses Gates’ offer to reimburse his investment, saying he wanted answers and somebody to take responsibility for the company collapse (rather than blaming it on a rogue program).
Lee Gates and his show Money Monster, however, is the culmination of Network‘s pessimistic predictions. In order to attract a crowd, Gates opens the show with scantily clad dancers dressed as Uncle Sam. He spouts off corporate-fed nonsense that predicts where and how to invest and make money without regard for the various consequences of the investment. He’s a celebrity made for the investment class, those with enough money to throw away or who work in the financial industry. The hostage scenario causes Gates to substantially investigate one of the featured companies for the first time, to his chagrin.
In the segment reminiscent of The Counselor, the conspiracy behind Money Monster finds the company creating profit by financing worker unrest in third world countries around the world. During the latest venture, CEO Walt Camby was financing unrest in Johannesburg, South Africa but things weren’t coming to their usual conclusion. Normally, he would use the unrest to devalue a stock, then call off the unrest and make a profit. Now, the union leader isn’t playing ball, and that company continued plummeting. Camby says that he had been executing this scheme for years, but nobody actually cared until his plot failed. Who cares about worker unrest halfway around the world as long as the investors get their money?
The four films present a cycle over the past 40+ years where the worker has been continually devalued while the wealth has skyrocketed. One hardly believes that the economic themes of Money Monster, a movie made in 2016, has thematic parallels in movies from two generations ago. But, the cycle has continued unabated with little relief in the intervening years. Though these are hardly documentaries, their relative truth speaks to the failure of some of our systems, both private and public.
Network airs on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday 2/18 at 10:30pm.