Commentary

Corporate America Gets a Makeunder at the Movies

A recent YouGov survey shows that millennials now have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism. One reason might be the movies that they have grown up with, which portray corporate America in an increasingly negative light. This is especially evident in Hollywood remakes, where the same characters re-emerge with altered attitudes and values. It’s like a scene from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Consider the makeover of Linus Larrabee, the billionaire workaholic from “Sabrina.” In the 1954 version starring Humphrey Bogart, Linus is a value creator with a higher purpose than profit. “If making money was all there was to business, it would hardly be worthwhile going to the office,” he tells his playboy brother, David. “Money is the byproduct.”

Mystified, David presses for clarification: “But what’s the main objective? Power?” What follows is a guilt-free defense of capitalism.

“A new product has been found — something of use to the world,” Linus tells his brother. “So a new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up. Machines are brought in. A harbor is dug for doing business. It’s purely coincidental, of course, that people who never saw a dime before suddenly have a dollar, and barefooted kids have shoes and have their teeth fixed and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with the kind of urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?”

A recent YouGov survey shows that millennials now have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism. One reason might be the movies that they have grown up with.

The same Linus would never talk like that in the 1995 remake starring Harrison Ford. The modernized Linus feels conflicted about his work. In the same scene with the same brother, he skips over any discussion of higher moral purpose — leaving viewers with David’s original assumptions about money and power.

Other Hollywood remakes go beyond simple omissions of pro-business monologues. They actively portray corporate America as evil.

In the 1962 version of “The Manchurian Candidate” starring Frank Sinatra, Soviets capture a U.S. platoon during the Korean War and take the soldiers to Manchuria in Communist China for brainwashing. The 2004 version starring Denzel Washington changes the villains to corporate leaders from Manchurian Global, a private equity fund under SEC investigation.

“You guys are going to have more assets than the European Union,” a partygoer tells a group of Manchurian Global officers. “Don’t we already?” one executive replies with a chuckle. Greed and political power feed such asset-mongering, not value creation in business.

Pharmaceutical giant Devlin MacGregor is just as bad in the 1993 version of “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Leaders from the fictional firm care about profit more than human life, so when a woman discovers a dangerous flaw in the firm’s newest product, they hire a one-armed hitman to have her killed.

The original version, a 1960s television series starring David Janssen, never imagines such corporate conspiracy. Back then, one-armed killers were just loners motivated by robbery.

The same trend holds in the Bond movies — successors to Sean Connery fight evil empire builders, not evil psychopaths and communists.

Some business tycoons retain their hero status from past decades. But when they do, it’s for work performed outside the office. Billionaires Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark fight crime as superheroes in Batman and Iron Man. Daddy Warbucks rescues an orphan girl in Annie. None of this speaks to the inherent value of business for its own sake.

We explore the shifting tone in Business in the Movies, a new 10-week series at the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, housed at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Participants include the same millennials represented in the YouGov survey. We review historical context, explore portrayals from different eras and genres, and identify patterns.

Maybe corporate America will catch a break this year during production of the third version of “The Fugitive.” If not — and if portrayals continue to mute or pervert the values of the vast majority of business professionals — society might be headed for something like the final scene of the 1978 “Body Snatchers” remake, when the last human in San Francisco realizes her fate and screams in terror.

Rajshree Agarwal is director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and a Cato adjunct scholar. Christina Elson is managing director of the Snider Center.