Feature Thousand Words

Thousand Words: Tetris, Air, Dumb Money, BlackBerry and Modern Cinema’s Relationship with Capitalism

For an industry so reliant on the whims of the marketplace, cinema’s relationship with capitalism has never been a straightforward one. Even as vast amounts of money were channelled into the filmmaking machinery and yet greater profits were realized at the other end, movies have never been completely comfortable with the economic system on which they depend. If some filmmakers have enjoyed rather cosy relationships their financial backers, others have risen up in open rebellion. To witness these cinematic shifts over the decades is to have a window onto society’s ever-changing outlook on the lumbering beast that is modern capitalism.

Such questions were still being projected onto cinema screens in 2023. In that year, four films were released which all wrestled with familiar dilemmas and, in doing so, helped reveal how attitudes toward our economic reality continue to evolve deep into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the most ringing endorsement of capitalism comes in the form of Tetris, the tale of a fast-talking businessman who travels to the 1980s Soviet Union in pursuit of the iconic video game that will conquer the software market and make a handful of people, including himself, very wealthy.

Tetris is a picture that has a resounding faith in the commercial system that is its playground. Its hero, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), is resourceful and determined, as if he has emerged straight from the pages of a Milton Freidman essay. And, as Friedman would have predicted, the marketplace eventually rewards Rogers’s endeavours. It may require some tense negotiations and high-speed car chases, but in the end he emerges triumphant. In this movie’s universe, anyone with a good idea and a briefcase full of ambition can rise to the top.

Western-style capitalism is also shown to be infinitely superior to the socialist state of Soviet Russia. The former is a world of colour and possibility while the latter is a decaying nightmare, where human beings are afraid to smile lest it attract the attention of the KGB agents that lurk around every corner. Its faceless apparatchiks cannot even summon up enough humanity to laugh at the wise-cracking hero’s jokes – in this ideologically-driven society, even humour is written off as bourgeois false consciousness.

Fittingly for such a repressive state, the film’s Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, with the Berlin Wall about to be torn down and the first rays of a capitalist future breaking through the grey skies. The hero’s success in the video game world is not just the victory of an individual entrepreneur, but that of market forces over doomed Soviet collectivism. History is over and the future is bright, American, and capitalist.

Air, which chronicles the genesis of the Nike Air Jordan basketball shoe, is a little – if only a little – murkier.  This is the story of how a rookie Michael Jordan was enlisted by Nike to commit his name to a shoe that would transform the market and propel its creators into the ranks of the super-rich.

Wary of such a potentially shallow outline, the producers were determined to give Air a more defiant edge. Firstly, the film attempts to establish Nike as a plucky underdog in the basketball shoe game, the antithesis of soulless corporate giants like Converse and Adidas. The Air Jordan shoe is presented as not just a money-spinning machine, but the first such product to allow its athlete a cut of the profits, heralding a shift in player/sponsor relations and the beginning of a more equitable deal between the NBA and its stars.  And compared to its rivals, Nike is positioned as the home of the free-thinking maverick; the company’s head, played by director Ben Affleck, is an unconventional CEO, wearing running shoes to work and reeling off morsels of Eastern philosophy.

Yet, despite the film’s protests, Nike is still a company whose boss turns up to work in a custom-painted Porsche. And in all the talk of this giant corporation as a rebellious upstart, there is no mention of its questionable employment record or exploitative business practices around the world.

Ultimately, Air is a capitalist fairy tale. At is heart is the notion that the key to success is simply being yourself, ploughing your own furrow, and refusing to fall in line with the herd; it is the belief that the marketplace has an unfilled niche, hovering out there in the void, which can only be satisfied by you and all the wonderful qualities that make you unique. After witnessing the film’s euphoric conclusion, we come away with the impression that all is well in the American marketplace – we just need to be ourselves, embrace our idiosyncrasies, and start planning the next revolution in basketball shoes.

Dumb Money, on the other hand, is a different kind of movie. It tells the story of how small-time investors gambled on Game Stop stock and embarrassed the cynical hedge funds who had bet against the failing video game retailer. Unlike Air, this is a true David and Goliath story: its protagonists are not captains of industry, but nurses, store workers, and indebted students, hoping to beat the establishment by placing investments via their smart phones.

Dumb Money also possesses the keen sense of economic injustice that was absent from both Tetris and Air. Here, we finally see the underbelly of capitalist society that those pictures mostly ignored: the inequality, deprived inner-cities, and struggling families.

Nevertheless, even in this film, the measure of change that is achieved by the end credits does not come from any radical source, but from those working within the existing framework. Despite its more unruly elements, Dumb Money is still a movie in which the good guys walk away with mountains of cash and leave the system in a better state than they found it in. Paul Dano’s investment guru, known to his internet followers as ‘Roaring Kitty’, is no political crusader but a committed capitalist. Even if his actions represent a win for the everyman against vested interests, his vehicles are stocks and shares, rather than policy and meaningful change.

When Roaring Kitty and his fellow investors defeat the hedge funds, they temper the film’s subversive instincts with a splash of optimism, suggesting that capitalism in its current guise is not beyond redemption after all. All it needs, perhaps, is a new wave of go-getters like Roaring Kitty to come along and beat the big boys at their own game – while simultaneously cleaning up in the stock market and adding some extra zeroes to their bank accounts. In the film’s final telling, no political intervention is required and any solutions lie at the level of the individual capitalist.

The last of these pictures to be released, BlackBerry, might have sent its viewers from screenings with a very different lasting impression. Initially, the film looks set to tell a familiar story. In 1990s Canada, a group of lovable tech nerds have an idea for an innovative mobile device that will become the wildly successful BlackBerry phone. As in Tetris, Air and Dumb Money, ambitious outsiders disrupt a stagnant business landscape and become its new superstars.

Once again, the film’s heroes are proud nonconformists, wearing geek culture t-shirts, playing video games in the office and suspending work for the weekly ritual of movie nights. As it did for the iconoclasts at Nike, the marketplace rewards them for this stubborn refusal to conform by throwing stacks of cash in their direction, along with a new corporate headquarters and a fresh supply of video game consoles.

In all of the previous films, this was the highpoint at which the stories crescendoed and the heroes rode off into the sunset. In BlackBerry, however, there is the time for the dream to turn dark and the audience is forced to stick around and discover what happens next.

Despite the adrenaline rush of his initial success, the corporate world eventually swallows up Mike (Jay Baruchel), the phone’s creative force and the film’s central character. As he battles to retain BlackBerry’s market position, Mike surrenders himself piece by piece, losing his earlier sense of playfulness, arguing with his best friend Doug (Matt Johnson) and, perhaps worst of all, cancelling the office’s movie nights. He even changes his appearance, exchanging his earlier more casual look for slicked back hair and generic business attire in what feels like a painful act of self-mutilation.

Here, capitalism turns out to be fundamentally flawed, and forces Mike into a series of agonizing compromises. In the film’s final scene, he is pictured against countless boxes of his latest phone which, due to market pressures, have fallen far short of his own lofty standards. Mike digs into a box and grapples desperately with one of the devices, but he is swimming against an impossible tide and can never repair them all. As the camera pulls away, Mike is becoming a lost and tragic figure among the stacks of malfunctioning product.

This is a conclusion that departs wildly from those of the previous films. When BlackBerry has reached its denouement, capitalism has not provided Mike with happiness or personal fulfilment, but broken relationships and psychological schisms. Rather than being life-affirming it has proved itself to be an alienating force, destroying Mike’s vision and turning him into the kind of cynical, inferior manufacturer he had set out to oppose.

To succeed in this film’s capitalist landscape, you have to surrender your most essential self – a price that will be paid sooner or later. In ending on this note, BlackBerry suggests that something is very wrong within the inner workings of the modern marketplace. Our current version of capitalism, like Mike’s defective new phones, might suffer from deep structural problems that a quick fix, or a determined entrepreneur, cannot solve alone.

By Rhys Peregrine

Rhys Peregrine is a PhD student at Cardiff University, writing his thesis on 1941's How Green Was My Valley and its reception in Wales. He is interested in movies and anything whatsoever they can tell us about society and culture.

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