People

CFO at the Movies: Reviews of Films Featuring Business and Finance

Here are some of our favorite business-oriented movies that are worth a rewatch as we close out 2022.
CFO at the Movies: Reviews of Films Featuring Business and Finance
Photo: Wall Street image via Getty Images

We at CFO hope you are enjoying your holiday downtime and catching up on some of your favorite movies in the process. If you’re like us, films that feature business and finance might hold a special place in the cinematic catalog. 

We decided to have some fun and recount some of our favorite business-oriented movies, and perhaps inspire you to give them a rewatch as well, as you close out 2022. Enjoy!

***

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

Wall Street

Released: 1987

Quick summary: A young stockbroker named Bud Fox wants to run with the big dogs on Wall Street, eventually earning the trust of stock and real estate speculator Gordon Gekko. But to stay in the game, Fox begins to engage in insider trading and corporate espionage, and things begin to fall apart amid Gekko’s attempted acquisition of Bluestar Airlines. Fox learns the hard way that Gekko plays in a different league and by a different set of rules.

First encounter: VHS tape, circa 1990. Just old enough to have an inkling of what was going on while missing 75% of the nuance. 

Why is this a finance movie? Gekko is the embodiment of the Wall St. tycoon, modeled in part after Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.

Best finance-related scene: The tete-a-tete between Gekko and Sir Larry Wildman showcases two of the finest actors in the movie negotiating a tender offer. It is both high stakes negotiation and primal, right down to the antique firearms in the backdrop.

Movie star you were excited to see: It is always fun revisiting Michael Douglas’ early role that catapulted him to the limelight while perfecting the idea of the antihero that future generations of stockbrokers wanted to emulate.

Movie star you were surprised to see: John C. McGinley has some great fun with his small part as Fox’s co-worker, Marvin, who also says one of the more funny lines about “NASA stock.” 

Scene you should rewatch on YouTube right now: Everyone who knows this movie knows the scene, but it’s still so perfect in its composition, compulsion, and underlying cleverness that it can’t be beaten.

Best quote: Let’s go with the other quote.

“Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” — Lou Mannheim 

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed by: Andy Burt

***

Thank You for Smoking

Released: 2005

Quick summary: The movie focuses on balancing morality, ethics, and values both personally and professionally during one’s career. 

First encounter: This was my first time seeing the movie. I watched it in my apartment on a freezing night in Babylon, New York. 

Why is it a finance movie? Tobacco, primarily cigarettes, is an extremely lucrative business that is heavily scrutinized and regulated. Much like finance and financial products, the tobacco industry is a balance of regulation, consumer protection, and consumer choice juggled between government and corporate interests. 

Best finance-related scene: The movie showcases the power of communication, articulation, and justification of actions. It identifies the root of one’s morals. The idea of justifying questionable moral decisions is a position that many people in leadership roles, especially executives in corporate finance, may find themselves in at some point during their careers.

Movie star you were most excited to see: When Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) calls Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) to offer him the movie studio’s terms on having the main characters in a big film about smoke. It shows a negotiation between two commonly distinct personalities in the corporate world: the ultra-professional, buttoned-up, workaholic in Jeff, and the super casual, ‘tell me how it is’ character in Nick.

When discussing the terms of a deal, a lot of times one side will have this attitude, regardless of what industry or context a sale is taking place. Think about making a car purchase, negotiating a mortgage, or even buying furniture — was the person on the other end of the deal very casual or very professional, and how did you respond? Negotiation is such a huge part of business, and executives can draw value out of this scene that demonstrates a funny but extremely realistic conversation between both parties of a corporate negotiation. 

I didn’t really know anyone in the cast prior to watching this film. I knew Eckhart from a few different movies, and I was aware that Katie Holmes (who plays reporter Heather Holloway) was married to Tom Cruise at one point. As usual, many faces were known to me throughout the movie, but I approached the movie more for the concept rather than the cast.

Movie star you were most surprised to see: I was surprised to see Rob Lowe in the film. As always, he is funny in such a unique way. 

Scene to rewatch on YouTube right now: The ice cream scene when Nick talks to his son about his job is the most rewatchable scene. When his son is inquiring how he got into his job as a lobbyist, Nick talks about how his success relies upon a “moral flexibility” that most people don’t have. When talking about the power of articulation and rhetoric in arguments, Nick uses ice cream, prompting his son to argue the best flavor. When his son argues chocolate, Nick argues vanilla and all other flavors, citing freedom of choice and liberty as the roots of his thought process.

The son, confused, has learned a lesson about how winning an argument isn’t about being right, but it’s about the person you’re arguing with being wrong. 

At the end of the scene, the movie cuts to a shot of both Nick and his son on a ferris wheel, both holding vanilla ice cream. The obvious symbolism of winning the argument here was great. 

Best quote: The end of the negotiation between Nick and Jeff is the best line in the movie.

Nick: “Well, that’s London calling, 7 a.m. in the old empire”

Jeff:  “Jeff, when do you sleep?”

Nick: “Sunday.”

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewer: Adam Zaki

***

Margin Call

Released: 2011

Quick summary: Margin Call is a film that shows the importance of how detrimental information within a corporate structure is relayed, handled, and leveraged, and if handled strategically, can pay dividends to the outcome of the consequences.

First encounter: I have seen clips of this movie on YouTube and social media for years. I watched it for the first time in its completion on a recent work trip to Washington, DC.

Why is it a finance movie? It takes place in an investment firm, highlighting the overall dynamic between analysts all the way up to the CEO. The movie focuses on complex financial products being bought and sold and their impact on the global economic market. 

Best finance-related scene: The senior partners’ meeting is by far the best finance-related scene in this movie. The endless details, from the distinctive color of CEO John Tuld’s (Jeremy Irons) red tie, versus everyone else’s neutral colors in the meeting, to the numerous non-verbal communication, to downplaying of John’s intelligence in the dialogue throughout the scene, shows the cunning and sophisticated nature of an executive who is an apex predator. 

Movie star you were excited to see: When discussing flooding the market with bad products in order to avoid his own company’s demise, Tuld depicts himself as stern but relatable. As the situation is explained throughout the corporate hierarchy in the meeting, their predicament becomes more simple to understand, and Tuld creates the scenario for both the room and for the viewer to comprehend it. Tuld asks the rocket scientist-turned-financial analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) who understands the complexity more than anyone else in the room, to explain it to Tuld as if he was a “young child or a golden retriever.” 

Movie star you were surprised to see: Jeremy Irons’ character in this movie is stellar. His performance in the board room meeting and at the restaurant towards the end of the movie when Sam Rodgers (Kevin Spacey) tries to quit is great. His dark, simple approach to business is as haunting as intriguing, and the executive intimidation factor is portrayed superbly. 

It was surprising to see Penn Badgley in this movie. As the star of the Netflix hit “You,” Badgley has had some previous roles in things like “Gossip Girl” and “John Tucker Must Die” which made me aware of who he was when I was growing up. It was interesting to see him in one of his first major roles play a character that is unlike anything I have seen him play in the past. 

Scene to rewatch on YouTube right now: The scene to rewatch on YouTube (outside of the senior partners meeting, of course) is the private chat scene after the meeting that takes place between Tuld and Rodgers. When Tuld is overlooking New York, expressing his liking of the city, Rodgers is concerned about the actions his company is taking.  It is an interesting scene about two different perspectives on how to deal with a major corporate issue.

Best quote: “There are three ways to make a living in this business, be first, be smarter, or cheat.” — John Tuld

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewer: Adam Zaki

***

The Big Short

Released: 2015

Quick summary:  Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” is a dizzying exploration of the underpinnings of the bond market’s mortgage-backed securities — and the building of the tumescent international banking system via the fees for selling them. Then, it’s about finance guys getting technical on other finance guys and turning a trick on the system. 

First encounter: From the airy, economy chair of an Aeroflot flight from St. Petersburg, Russia, to London. Steve Carell redeemed himself after his disturbing role in the Foxcatcher, an acute definition of a horror film, with his portrayal of his character, Mark Baum’s “yucking the yum” of mainstream banking, which he plays out like a Parisian food critic at a honky tonk barbeque. I’ve rewatched the film several times since. Micheal Lewis, the author of the book on which the film is based, is a master of making “dull” and incomprehensible subjects wildly intriguing. 

Why is it a finance movie? The central characters — several solitary hedge fund power players and coagulated fund misfits dispersed across the country all suffering from extended professional and personal cynicism — endeavor to value the appropriate bet on the categorized and re-categorized tranches of overleveraged individual subprime housing loans.

Upon discovering egregious risk oversights, the game gets increasingly dirty as these outliers make their rounds fashioning credit default swaps to short the housing market bonds at Wall Street’s banking behemoths — all based on the distorted value assigned by the corrupt rating agencies. Against the grain, the players manipulate their positions betting against the Kool-Aid-keeps-us-drunk and the paychecks-get-us-high swagger of mainstream Wall Street. Moves that jeopardize their underdog stature in a world of alphas until the revealing of the lie.

Ultimately, the film questions the underlying premise of a mountain (the financial industry) — and illuminates its toppling in 2008 that reverberated across the world wiping out the saving and investments of institutions, profoundly harming individuals and, indeed, entire nations (Iceland). It closes with not one banner left to fly and no crowd cheering. Even the good guys are pretty much brutally greedy.

Best finance-related scene: There are many. When Mark Baum interrupts a Vegas conference to call out the determinedly crooked executive of a national mortgage association; when one-eye, socially incapable hedge fund manager, Micheal Burry (Christian Bale) writes Scion’s tanking performance stats on a whiteboard in a quiet room of confused low-status traders; any and all of the upbeat scenes of the perennially-enthused, marginally hip, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). 

Scene to rewatch on YouTube right now: It’s neither Margot Robbie in the bathtub nor Selena Gomez playing poker. But using a few random hot women as entertainment pawns? It seems like this might be a finance movie made by Hollywood. 

Best quotes:

“I never hung out with these idiots after work, never. I had fashion friends.” — Jared Vennett  Oh, New York I love you.  

“I’m standing in front of a burning house and I’m offering you fire insurance on it.” — Jared Vennett

“When the pile gets big enough, they call it diversified and the whores at the rating agencies give it a 92% rating. No questions asked.” — Jared Vennett

“Truth is like poetry. And most people *@#$ hate poetry.” — overheard at the bar

“We bought into a rigged game.” — Jamie Shipley

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewer: Carolina Starin

***