Big business is new villain in Hollywood

Films may reflect public sentiment

August 02, 2004|By Deborah Hornblow | Deborah Hornblow,HARTFORD COURANT

Over the years, American cinema has played host to a variety of bad guys. From tomahawk-wielding Indians to goose-stepping Nazis, Cold War communists, Italian mobsters and Japanese fighters, celluloid public enemies have tended to reflect and define chapters of our nation's history.

In recent times, a climate of political correctness has made movie enemies harder to come by. Communists no longer generate much fear. Japanese fighters have become the heroes of martial-arts pictures. Nazis are still reliably evil, as they were most recently in Hellboy, but stereotypical images of Native Americans, Asians, Italians, Arabs, Muslims and other ethnic, religious or political groups open filmmakers to charges of cultural insensitivity.

It seems no wonder, then, that screenwriters are capitalizing on the growing dimensions and horrors of a new favorite bad guy, one familiar from daily headlines and news stories and mostly safe from charges of political incorrectness. In films from Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which opened Friday, to I, Robot, The Bourne Supremacy, Spider-Man 2 and even Catwoman, the movie industry's new villain is, by and large, the corporation.

In Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, Tobey Maguire's webslinging Spidey must save New York from the foul creation of a scientific research corporation. Pitof's Catwoman finds Halle Berry's feline battling representatives of a cosmetics company that plans to introduce a new beauty cream despite evidence it is toxic. In Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Supremacy, Matt Damon's amnesiac Jason Bourne finds himself up against the murderous machinations of a Russian oil oligarch, a budding capitalist with ties deep inside the U.S. government. In I, Robot, Will Smith's Detective Spooner discovers that the giant U.S. Robotics Corp. is suppressing information about mutant machines in advance of the largest robot rollout in the company's history. And in Demme's The Manchurian Candidate, Denzel Washington's Army officer, Ben Marco, finds himself in the middle of a corporate conspiracy to take control of the highest office in U.S. government.

Similarly, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 explores ties linking the Bush administration to Halliburton, Unocal and Saudi oil interests. In the documentary The Corporation, filmmakers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan delve into the concept of the corporation itself - how it came to be roughly 150 years ago, how it has become the dominant social institution of our time, and why that may be hazardous to the health of free societies.

The current cycle of corporation-bashing films follows earlier ones including 1983's Silkwood, 1989's Roger & Me, 1998's A Civil Action, 1999's The Insider and 2000's Erin Brockovich, all of which are based on true stories and dramatize the dangers to individuals in a society dominated by corporate profit margins.

The gleaming windowed tower in I, Robot or the sleek high-rise offices of the Hedare Corp. of Catwoman are marble edifices where executives may commit immoral acts in the name of profit. The cold-blooded lawyers who represent Beatrice Food Corp. and W.R. Grace in A Civil Action and Pacific Gas & Electric in Erin Brockovich are the faces of remote, well-cushioned impenetrability. Likewise, the tobacco CEOs who perjure themselves before Congress to protect profits in The Insider.

Whether narrative or documentary, the celluloid portrait of the corporation is uniformly unflattering, all of which makes Big Business the perfect Public Enemy No. 1. In these films, corporations are depicted as outsized, profit-driven, unprincipled and potentially murderous. For them, nothing counts except the bottom line.

In Roger & Me, General Motors' loyalty to the town of Flint, Mich., its history there and its citizens matter nothing when profits can be increased by moving auto plants to Mexico. The health and safety of employees and consumers are secondary to profits in Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action and The Insider, and fictionalized in Catwoman. The principles of a democratic government are pushed aside in favor of corporate profiteering in Fahrenheit 9/11 and the fictional Manchurian Candidate.

Toxic water supplies, poisoned air, workplace contamination, carcinogenic products and possibly murder are all side effects of corporate skulduggery.

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