Financial Regulation On The Silver Screen

I saw Tower Heist, Brett Rattner’s financial-scam thriller, last night, which was both better than I expected and confirmed a definitive trend: our movies are moving away form narratives of individual or localized hardship, like the foreclosure in Drag Me To Hell or the layoffs in The Company Men and Up in the Air, and towards identifying individuals and institutions responsible for the downturn and making them pay. So I was interested to read a bibliography put together by Loren E. Miller, a PhD Candidate at American University, and forwarded to me by a generous reader, tracing the evolution of financial regulation in Hollywood movies from 1914 on. Miller writes about the evolution from a moral and individual perspective from an institutional one:

The earliest silent films, created during the 1910s, depicted financial misdeeds as stock speculation and manipulation, as well as embezzlement…However, there is no real institutional punishment for financial misdeeds. Characters are punished by fate and misfortune, but there are few government repercussions…


During the 1920s, many of the same types of misdeeds are depicted in films; however the reasons behind the crimes and the punishments shift. Characters often have good intentions and noble reasons for committing misdeeds, such as helping an impoverished family member. These characters are often redeemed in the end of the film, perhaps because of the good intent behind their actions…

The 1930s is by far the decade with the largest number of films focusing on financial regulation. The increase in movies on this topic provides insight into the historical moment; the country faced the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929, and at the same time film technology grew. The motion pictures of the 1930s reflect the country’s preoccupation with the stock market crash, and the influence money can have on people. Many movies in 1930s include crimes such as embezzlement. There are also a fair number of films that survey past financial panics. During the 1930’s, characters that perform these misdeeds are subject to governmental punishments instead of moral ones. For example, The Gorilla mentions an SEC agent investigating a financial crime.

It’s not surprising that we’ve been here before. The question is whether a public passion for some sort of reform, or at least, for making the bastards pay — I haven’t heard a crowd cheer as loudly as the one did at the end of Tower Heist in quite some time — will actually translate into enforced regulation. Dodd-Frank’s still tied down in all sorts of missed deadlines and Republican obstructionism. Richard Cordray still hasn’t made it to his office at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And we’re not getting New Deal levels of public investment. Obviously robbing Bernie Madoff isn’t a possible solution or a systemic one. But I sort of see how it would resonate when institutional change doesn’t seem like an available option.