Here’s something to ponder: one of the villains in a 1930s Superman comic book was a banker trying to foreclose on a house. Not Lex Luthor or any of the other panoply of evil-doers Superman would later face, many with super powers themselves. Nope, one of Superman’s first enemies was a banker.
Bankers have a long history as the bad guys. And it’s not as if they’ve done much in recent years to try to rehabilitate that image. In fact, let me go rummage around in my garage for a moment. Aha! There it is. My soapbox. Here’s a simple question: other than money for themselves, what do they make?
They don’t make buildings or movies or food. They don’t clean things up or make gardens look nice. They don’t drive anyone to work or heal you when you are sick or listen to your problems. They don’t really do anything. What investment bankers and financial people do is take giant piles of money on a table, shuffle it around, and collect fees for doing that. That’s it.
And yet somehow they are highly-regarded figures. A guy like Jamie Dimon, who runs JP Morgan Chase, is treated like the Sun King whenever he has some sort of pronouncement. Or look how deferential everyone is to Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a company the Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi once called “a vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Doubt me? In the race to the bottom for most questionable business, banks get fined more by the government than coal mine operators or slaughterhouses making dog food.
Whether you agree with me or not, here’s a guide to some really great banker-bad-guys to put into your queue.
When I said that bankers don’t make anything, I was exaggerating. Occasionally, they invent complex financial instruments that completely destroy the global economy. So there’s that. One of these instruments was something called a Credit Default Swap, which is what bankers were betting with like crazy in the years leading up to the housing market collapse in 2008. Buyers of credit default swaps believe the underlying assets—a melange of mortgage…oh, wait. This movie explains all of that in amusing and interesting ways.
This movie is the perfect example of a dark comedy: it gets its laughs from a miserable tale. Adam McKay, who is Will Ferrell’s long-time collaborator, broke out as a significant writer/director in his own right with this film. He co-wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay with Charles Randolph and directed a remarkable cast that includes Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale.
The financial crisis of 2008 was years in the making and is incredibly complicated to explain. Although if you are familiar with the concept of greed, you pretty much get the jist of this story. This brilliant documentary by Charles Ferguson explains how the global banking system teetered at the edge of collapse in 2008. If that whole situation was utterly confusing to you, this is the movie to watch. It’s a tangled mess of the failure of governmental or regulatory supervision combined with relentless “innovation” by bankers. It’s infuriating and depressing because it feels as if we are headed in that same direction all over again right now. Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, once observed: “If something doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s probably because it doesn’t make sense.”
In 1985, Ken Lay founded an energy company by merging two small regional ones together. A little over fifteen years later, that company, Enron, had become one of the largest companies in the US, if not the world. And then in the space of half a year, it collapsed, went bankrupt, cost thousands of people their jobs, and screwed up the California economy by fiddling with the delivery of electricity. And it turned out that its soaring financial performance was based almost entirely on fraudulent accounting. This is a great documentary by one of the finest documentary filmmakers around—Alex Gibney. Don’t miss this one.
Barings Bank was founded in 1762 and was as established a bank as you could imagine. It’s where the Queen kept her money! You couldn’t get more respectable than Barings Bank. And then one “rogue trader” in their Singapore office, Nick Leeson, brought the bank down with an immense series of speculative and secret trades. This is a true story brought brilliantly to life by writer/director James Dearden. Ewan McGregor gives the performance of his career as Leeson, a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who rose to the pinnacle at Barings…and then inadvertently and single-handedly destroyed the firm.
I could have chosen Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) or Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), but both of these movies come across as frenetic Hollywood takes on life on Wall Street. Margin Call, however, has the right sort of nervous anxiety and quiet doom that a banking scandal needs to have. Loosely based on the collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns, this movie, which was written and directed by J.C. Chandor, chronicles one day and one night and the next morning in the life of a bank that is collapsing. Outstanding performances by Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.