With Occupy Wall Street and The 99 Percenters making their presence thoroughly felt, and St. Paul’s Cathedral basically a giant branch of Milletts with bells on, the release of sci-fi parable In Time and blue-collar thriller Tower Heist couldn’t be more timely. One punches the idle rich square in the kisser and the other does, well, likewise only with an Eddie Murphy-shaped fist. But if the thought of Axel Foley (the donkey from Shrek, if you’re under 20) coming for them doesn’t have terrified fat cats bolting themselves into their diamond-encrusted money castles, perhaps a quick glance at John Carpenter’s satirical sci-fi They Live might do the trick. Or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Or Erin Brockovich. Or, um, The Muppets Christmas Carol. There’s a movie for every protester out there. Of course, not everyone’s going to see it that way – Fox News has already memorably dismissed In Time as “the perfect date movie for Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin” – and Hollywood’s big studios may not be the most obvious place to look for the next Das Kapital, but if you’re in need of stirring entertainment for those frosty nights on society’s picket line, you could do a lot worse than these ten gems.
Director: Oliver Stone
*The little guy*: Carl Fox (Martin Sheen)
*The villain*: Gekko & Co.
Bearing in mind that cinema began with one a blue-collar flick (the Lumiere brothers’ ‘Exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon’) way back in 1895, and that most are old-fashioned, Bill O’Reilly-bothering lefties, it’s not surprise that filmmakers have usually sided with the many against the few. Oliver Stone – a man who, in a different era, would have made the House of Anti-American Activities beep every time he left the house – for one has never shirked from standing up for David against the capitalist Goliath. His cameras occupied Wall Street for real back in the late ‘80s and again 20 years on. The kicker? Nothing much had changed. The rich had gotten richer and, second time out, it even took one of their number – Michael Douglas’s money reptile Gordon ‘Greed is good’ Gekko – to tell us. Bizarrely, much like Bret Easton Ellis’s satire, American Psycho, Wall Street’s pin-striped warlocks mistook Stone’s cautionary tale for a celebration of excess. Here’s a clue, guys: when you hear “Greed is good”, this is supposed to be IRONIC.
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
The little guys: Bolshevik revolutionaries
The villain: The Tsarist regime
If an army marches on its stomach as old Boney suggested, naval types get pretty peckish too, so it’s no use trying to serve them wormy meat and thin gruel if you don’t want them running around starting revolutions. In truth, the sailors of the Potemkin were more than a decent packed lunch away from railing against the authority of a tired state. Eisenstein’s masterpiece points an emaciated finger at the cruel, arrogant officer classes and a White Russian regime that was long past caring for its people. And if this all sounds a bit like propaganda to your ears, you’d be right – Eisenstein invented the Odessa Steps sequence to add emotional heft to the story – but it’s stirring stuff, whatever your political viewpoint.
Director: John Carpenter
The 'little' guy: ‘Nada’ (Roddy Piper)
The villain: Alien invaders
It’s the entire capitalist system versus Roddy Piper’s biceps in this deliriously batty John Carpenter sci-fi satire. Piper, a construction worker with big guns and a short fuse, shows that he’s been nicknamed ‘Rowdy’ for some pretty solid reasons by attempting to take down an entire social system. It starts when he stumbles upon a special pair of sunglasses that reveal that the suited-and-booted rich of the world are actually alien skull creatures who’ve been manipulating a compliant population with mind-controlling TV and subliminal messages. Imagine a world where there’s 50 channels and they’re all Fox News. But is Piper’s plaid-shirted loner Nada content to allow the extra-terrestrial landgrabbers exploit the planet? Is he heck. Persuading Keith David’s blue-collar bruiser to join the crusade by punching him repeatedly in the head until he tries on the glasses, Nada sets to work taking it to E.T. and pals. As he points out, he’s there to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and as we all know, his bubblegum supplies are running dangerously short.
Director: Fritz Lang
The little guy: Maria (Brigitte Helm)
The villain: Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel)
If there’s a quirky paradox in the most expensive silent film of all time – the Avatar of its day – also being a hymn to the poor and downtrodden, Fritz Lang did need to spend big in order to capture a futuristic world in which the rich live in a skyscrapers and fly about in airships while the workers sleep underground and subsist on warm gravel and bits of pocket fluff. Hitler loved it, but he may have been missing its point. Despite her rabble-rousing charisma, Metropolis’s heroine, the saintly Maria (Helm), is hardly to type to hold rallies or preach racist cant while waving her arms about like she’s accidentally electrocuted herself. Nope, she’s more of a cup-of-tea-and-a-hug figurehead for the angry masses, although things get complicated when she’s cloned into an evil doppelganger by a mad scientist (anyone in a protest movement should avoid this). If you’re hoping for a more caring, sharing future, the ending, in which the city’s scion, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), preaches the gospel of reasoned dialogue and hugs for all, should bring a smile to your face. Warning: if you work at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the sight of a phalanx of revolutionaries on the steps of Metropolis’s cathedral will bring you out in a rash.
Director: Sidney Lumet
The little guy: Howard Beale (Peter Finch)
The villain: Union Broadcasting System
Who hasn’t wanted to lean out the window like Howard Beale and bellow “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”? Come on, we all have – it’s why they invented double-glazing. Still, while Beale’s (Finch) perhaps not the best role model for the 99%’ers, what with the psychological breakdown and threat to commit suicide live on air, his one-man crusade against media manipulation seems even more prophetic in an age of spin and phone-tapping. Nowadays they’d probably just make “the mad prophet of the airwaves” a judge on The X Factor and be done with it, but Sidney Lumet’s satire instead makes him a god of reality TV with ‘The Howard Beale Show’, a platform for his stream-of-consciousness tirades about capitalism’s ills. Of course, these things have their limits and Beale finally gets the hook when he starts to question the moneymen behind his station. It’s left to Ned Beatty’s company chairman to scare the bejeezus of him with a shouty speech delivered from the end of a boardroom table the length of Wall Street. “There is no America! There is no democracy!” thunders Beatty, summing up our worst fears. “There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon."
Director: James Bridges
The little man: Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon)
The villain: Ventana nuclear power plant
Not to be confused with sensible-haired ‘80s popsters China Crisis, this typically fraught ‘70s corporate thriller comes from that era when shady men in wide-lapelled suits, often with a close physical resemblance to William Devane, would assassinate their own grandma for a go in the executive washroom. Post-Nixon Hollywood was awash with corporate villainy of all shapes and sizes, and no-one would be at all surprised to see more of the same from Hollywood in coming years. The title refers to the term panicky men in white coats use when a nuclear reactor melts down, floods the local area with nastiness and leaves all the locals to wonder why their lives suddenly resemble one of the less cheery bits in When The Wind Blows. Here it’s down to plucky TV reporter Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon’s career-limited technician to unveil the threat of impending catastrophe at a American power station. And guess what? Those evil suits have been covering it up. Again. Nobody could call the plot far-fetched, though. In a bizarre coincidence the movie was released 12 days before Three Mile Island. How’s that for life imitating art.
Director: Mike Nichols
The little man: Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep)
The villain: Kerr-McGee Corporation
A tale of corporate evilness so heinous and far-fetched it could only be true, Silkwood is the Rocky of anti-corporate thrillers. Sure, at no point does Meryl Streep’s doughty outsider strip down to her dressing gown and start punching dead cows, but her courageous commitment to a fight she surely can’t win would have The Italian Stallion mumbling his approval. Streep was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her gripping portrayal of Karen Silkwood, but her character didn’t fare so well, killed in mysterious circumstances in 1974 while on her way to meet a journalist. Her testimony to the Atomic Energy Commission pinned the blame on the Kerr-McGee Corporation for potentially fatal lapses in safety at her plutonium rod factory. Mike Nichol’s film leaves it to the viewer to decide whether it was also guilty of her death. As far as corporate negligence is concerned, make what you will of the company’s decision to agree a no-liability settlement of $1.3m three years after the film was made.
The little man: The Deputy (Yves Montand)
The villain: An unnamed military junta
Costa-Gavras’s Oscar-winning political satire is set in an unnamed country (clue: it’s Greece) run by anonymous dictatorship (or ‘Greek military junta’) who will stop at literally nothing to cling onto power (in Greece). Lest the plot doesn’t stir committed democrats to action, the director made sure everyone knew exactly who he was on about with credits that read: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." Yup, that’s you, Greek military junta. Revisiting Z in the light of Greece’s current struggles, it’s a fierce cautionary tale where things can lead when the economy goes down the swanny and the rule of law is replaced by the rule of men with shiny helmets and giant coshes. The hero of the piece, Yves Montand’s liberal politician, is on the receiving end of one such when he dares oppose the junta and his murder – inspired by the assassination of real-life Greek liberal Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 – shows how dangerous these men are. They even ban The Beatles, although strangely not Wings.
Director: Michael Mann
The little man: Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe)
The villain: Brown & Williamson Tobacco
Here’s one where the little man comes out on top. Michael Mann’s best film is a lean, mean treatise on what can happen when a whistleblower takes on a mighty corporation boasting little more than cast-iron conviction and a pair of very big spectacles. Crowe is that man, Jeffrey Wigand, an executive at Brown & Williamson Tobacco. He courageously reveals that Big Tobacco has been adding nicotine to its cigarettes to make them more addictive, to the sound of weeping from bike sheds everywhere. The smoking gun is, for once, actually smoking. Fuming, too, are Wigand’s ex-employers who make it known that he’ll pay a heavy price for what they claim is his mendacity. Thankfully Wigand has Al Pacino’s salty CBS producer, Lovell Bergman, to guide him through the moral maze, although he’s still on the receiving end of death threats and a smear campaign. As Bergman puts it: “The more truth he tells, the worse it gets.” Ultimately there are $246bn good reasons for Wigand to endure it all stoically – or in the bits where he completely melts down, not so stoically. The lesson for today’s protesters? Hang in there. Oh, and get Al Pacino to manage your press.
Director: Michael Moore
The little man: Michael Moore and the people of Flint, Michigan
The big corporation: General Motors
While his influence seems to have faded a little of late, Michael Moore still lays a pretty decent claim to being the polemicist of our age. The self-professed “gadfly of corporations” has a capacity to make steam come out of the ears of Republicans and business interests alike that dates all the way back to this, his first documentary, set in his home town of Flint, Michigan. Like a politicised Homer Simpson picketing Monty Burns, Moore took to task the Roger of the title, General Motors’s CEO Roger Smith, for shutting down the town’s car plant and shifting its 30,000 jobs to low-wage Mexico, effectively killing the entire town. The slippery, elusive Smith makes a satisfying bad guy – even Monty Burns wouldn’t have moved Springfield’s power plant to a completely different country – and Moore hounds him relentlessly to show up in Flint and see it all for himself. He can’t quite manage getting Smith to Flint but does get up the GM man’s nose along the way like, well, a gadfly.