On Cinema

Wall St wolves

On money, morality and motive in three films

At the beginning of 2021, a grim period of lockdown and Zoom calls, a small scandal ripped through American capitalism. It concerned shares in a computer game retailer, Gamestop.

Hedge funds, believing that this was a doomed business in an age of downloads, placed large bets that the company’s shares would fall. Small investors decided they were wrong, and began buying the stock, sending its price soaring. Some very rich men faced wipeout, and some very poor people thought they might have hit the jackpot. And then — well, what happened then is the story of Dumb Money.

Riotous, profane, full of heart and very funny, this is a morality tale of David and Goliath. The British are largely unaware of this intensely American story, but don’t let that stop you. The technical details are simple and well-handled. The film is also an excellent time capsule of the Covid years, a time of keeping your distance and wearing your mask.

These are people apparently born to be beaten by the system, and though the film glides past this point, many of them ultimately were

This is important context. How much of the Gamestop buying frenzy was the result of isolated people going a little crazyonline? Certainly, the guys pushing the stock up are the kind of people it’s hard to take seriously as investors: exchanging abusive messages and cat videos as they convince each other they’re on a sacred quest to get revenge on Wall Street. These are people apparently born to be beaten by the system, and though the film glides past this point, many of them ultimately were.

Is there a moral difference between trying to get rich and trying to stay rich? The film suggests that there is, that the little guys gambling on the stock exchange are heroic, while the big guys doing the same are villains. But none of them are innovators, or builders, or people devising means to make the world a better place.

The heroes of Blackberry might be. The story of how a small Canadian company built the world’s first addictive phone is less wild and more nuanced than Dumb Money. When we first meet Mike Lazaridis, the genius behind the device, he’s unable to stop thinking about the malfunctioning Chinese-built intercom on someone else’s desk.

“‘Good enough’ is the enemy of humanity,” he tells someone urging to compromise in his quest for technical perfection. Lazaridis is a man who believes in things other than money. So does his friend Doug Fregin, a man committed to cheering up the nerds who work for them with movie nights and computer game tournaments.

Unfortunately for these nerds, they have no business sense, and are about to go bust. They need a salesman, and find one in Jim Balsillie, who turns their ideas into gold. But Lazaridis is faced with a dilemma as the pressure to keep the company at the top conflicts with Fregin’s vision of a happy workplace. How will it end? Spoiler: no one is reading this article on a Blackberry.

Is there a moral to the film? The nerds get into bed with a guy in a suit, but it’s clear that if they hadn’t they would never have produced a single phone. Those nefarious corporate skills really do matter.

The suggestion at the end seems to be that Blackberry failed because Lazaridis compromised his principles, but that’s clearly wrong. It failed because Steve Jobs released the iPhone. There were plenty of technological dead ends around this time, and I owned examples of most of them.

For a while, the Blackberry guys had the best tech on the market, and got very rich. Then they didn’t, but they are still pretty rich, so that’s fine.

But perhaps a film doesn’t need a moral. Martin Scorsese certainly doesn’t think so. His new epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, also lacks a protagonist, a narrative and a structure. It is, however, three and a half hours long, and they just drag by.

This movie was lauded when it was shown at Cannes, which I guess tells you quite a lot about film festivals. It is the story of the Osage, a native American tribe who became fabulously wealthy thanks to the discovery of oil on their land. And then, in the 1920s, they started being murdered.

There are all sorts of interesting strands here: a parable about the destructive power of money; the tale of the Osage fight for justice; and the story about how the nascent FBI gave them at least a little of it. Scorsese, for reasons best known to himself, has brushed all these to one side, and instead focused on the least interesting people in the whole sorry saga: the dim-witted white family doing the murdering.

Robert De Niro plays, well, who are we kidding? He plays Robert De Niro. Leonardo DiCaprio sweats along as a man who may or may not know that he is poisoning his own wife, and may or may not think this is a good idea. This is never cleared up. Perhaps there will be a four-hour cut in which we find out.

There’s an interesting 90-minute film in here once the FBI turn up. Unfortunately, it’s appended to a tedious two-hour one. Sometimes people wonder when the best moment in a film is to nip to the loo. Viewers of Killers of the Flower Moon could go out for dinner at the half-hour mark, come back at two hours and not miss anything. In fact, that would make for a significantly more enjoyable evening.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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