“I’m not the real criminal here.”
Actor-turned-director Jodie Foster’s latest project is an ambitious, big budget thriller with an all-star cast, and the unexpected theme of American finances tying together a tale of graft, armed kidnaping, and corporate espionage. What The Big Short addressed with a true-to-life dramatisation of real events – unethical, purposely damaging actions by the financial industry – Money Monster deals with in a fictional venue.
George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the host of a rather awful TV programme called Money Monster (very similar to the popular American programme Mad Money), which combines glitzy entertainment with what is supposed to be serious financial advice for the general public. At the outset of the film, Gates is using entertaining screen effects to explain a recent, mysterious ‘computer glitch’ which caused the stock in a successful corporation, IBIS, to unexpectedly and severely drop in value.
The action quickly ramps up when a young man pretending to be delivering packages finds his way into the studio during a live broadcast. The man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), holds the show’s host at gunpoint and forces him to put on a vest lined with explosives, then holds the trigger. He demands to remain on the air while he makes a statement.
The taking of the studio by this alarming stranger is a tense, well-managed scene which moves from Gates and the angry and mentally scattered armed man who is holding him hostage, to the shocked producer and crew in the adjoining production booth. Budwell finally begins to read from a prepared statement. Having taken Lee Gates at his word, Budwell had invested his minimal life savings and his deceased mother’s small insurance payment in IBIS, and as a result lost everything he owned. He demands an explanation, not only for his own losses, but for the eighty million dollars lost by other investors as a result of this ‘glitch.’ To put the story in context, this is a situation which actually has occurred on more than one occasion – although not on live television.
What follows is a game of nerves between the gunman, who is clearly rattled and frantic but not deranged, and the production crew, led by the level-headed Patty (Julia Roberts), who quickly clears the building of unnecessary personnel. Lee Gates is little help, but merely protests and begs while Budwell rants and demands answers. Patty is able to contact a PR person from IBIS, Diane Lester (Catriona Balfe), but Lester knows little more than the public relations soundbites the company has provided her with. Budwell becomes more irate as he is fed misinformation and hype.
The tension, and the threat, is not all on one side. Kyle Budwell is presented as a recognisable character from many popular films, from The China Syndrome to Dog Day Afternoon to John Q: the justified hostage-taker. His pathetic and unfair situation, the indifference of the institutions which have cost him all he owns, and even his own stupid faith in a TV financial advisor, all make him a rather sympathetic character in spite of his actions. This leads to the development of a certain amount of empathy on the part of Patty, and even of Lee Gates. Irritated, in addition, by the stubborn reluctance of IBIS to provide answers, they try to assist Budwell in getting the information he wants, primarily in order to defuse the situation, but also because they have begun to wonder what is really going on.
For a time the movie moves into what might be called a reality show within a reality show. As members of the public watch the proceedings, Gates uses the equipment in his studio to assess IBIS, try to answer Budwell’s questions, look for ways to resolve the financial loss without any attendant deaths, and even delve into the question of the relative morality of giving misleading financial advice as opposed to threatening to blow up a TV studio. The action becomes more and more similar to Gates’ actual programme, until Gates becomes overconfident in his audience, and in a darkly funny plot twist, reality punctures his manufactured triumph, just as it deflates the imminent movie-style triumph the film had led us to expect – a rather clever manipulation that reminds us we are dealing with virtual reality many layers deep. This change, along with Budwell’s impatience with Gates’ distractions, breaks through the artificial atmosphere, and Budwell turns his attention, and ours, back to the completion his self-imposed mission.
Meanwhile, the film follows the action taking place at IBIS, behind the scenes. A breakthrough comes when the Diane Lester contacts Patty to reveal what she has learned. Yet another change in the film’s direction comes at this point. Without revealing the entire plot, Patty and the remaining Money Monster crew begin to take Budwell’s side and work to unearth the necessary data that will vindicate him. This even includes Gates, who suddenly and implausibly changes from a craven, amoral liar to an intrepid rebel hero, and leads the action at last out of the studio and into the streets of New York City, turning the claustrophobic studio interaction into a grand public spectacle.
The final act of the film may be called a full-blown financial revenge fantasy. The tension remains high, the action itself compelling, but unfortunately, the storyline becomes more and more improbable as it leads to what might, given the circumstances, be called a happy ending. The wronged are vindicated, and the evil not only brought to justice, but exposed on camera in front of the entire viewing public. By the conclusion, even the police have changed allegiance to a large extent.
The movie can be accused of being a triumph of style over substance. The direction, cinematography, set design, and acting are all excellent. The story is taut and fast paced throughout. The only problem is the unlikelihood of so many of the key events in any realistic scenario.
While satisfying to the audience’s sense of justice, how likely is it that Patty and Gates would work to track down Budwell’s information, regardless of how much the facts might further agitate him, rather than try to placate him by any means?
How likely is it that Patty would contact the one executive who was willing to inform on her company the moment misdeeds became apparent? Given that far greater financial crimes were conducted over the past decade or two without whistle-blowers coming forward, it seems like a remarkable bit of luck.
Is it conveniently cinematic, but misleading, to pin everything on a single villain, a CEO who has plotted to extort money for personal gain, rather than on the more amorphous villain of the US financial system itself?
Finally, given the way past financial fraud has resulted in few fines and no prison sentences, what are the chances that the scheming CEO of IBIS will actually be convicted of fraud and see the inside of a jail cell?
Bigger questions regarding financial ethics are handled indirectly, and mercifully without undue preachiness, but are certainly built into the film’s plot. The additional question of whether a show dedicated to finances has ever tried to dig for pertinent information of this kind in the past is left unasked; but the film does make a point of optimistically suggesting that Patty and Lee Gates will do better in the future.
As an enjoyable thriller, Money Monster comes through. It is well made, spares no expense on any aspect of production design, and is engrossing throughout.
As a film of protest or a revenge fantasy, it does only moderately well, although it takes itself far too seriously in this regard: rather than indulge in a clearly fanciful way, like Django Unchained, it presents the revenge and the correction of injustice as an attainable goal, which destroys much of its credibility and leaves itself open to a cynical reaction which is not what it is going for.
As a believable drama, it has some pieces missing. This is a film that can be watched for fun, provided the demands of realism and plausibility are not too stringent.