Free-Market Moments on the Silver Screen
Hollywood Occasionally Takes a Break from Vilifying Capitalism
MAY 01, 2006 by LAWRENCE W. REED
If you believe in capitalism, going to the movies is all too often a painful exercise. Even those you expect to be apolitical turn up gratuitous dialogue that peddles Hollywood’s pervasive but infantile anti-market sentiments. Apparently there’s a lot of money to be made criticizing the very marketplace that enables even its most superficial critics to get rich.
On the silver screen, capitalists are usually vilified as greedy and heartless, while statists of every stripe are depicted as selfless, romantic idealists who only want to help people. If it’s “private” or “profit”-motivated, it’s routinely denigrated. One plot so shopworn it’s almost a comedic parody of itself is evil businessmen destroying the environment as crusading politicians fight to clean it up.
In director Ivan Reitman’s 1993 flick Dave, a presidential look-alike (Kevin Kline), filling in for the incapacitated president, becomes a hero when he sees the light and champions more federal welfare spending. Rare is the film that takes a turn in the other direction, with the hero defending private property, free enterprise, lower taxes, civil society, and other principles that actually improve life and preserve our liberty at the same time.
This is not a trivial matter. Movies and movie stars do more than simply reflect the popular culture; they help shape and move it in certain directions. It takes superhuman special effects to make socialism look good, but Hollywood can make the most preposterous claims look like a documentary.
Just as the broken clock is right twice a day, however, every now and then the film industry produces a memorable moment of dialogue—and once in a blue moon, even an entire movie—that breaks the mold. What follows is a tiny sample of my favorites, from just four films.
The same Ivan Reitman cited above also directed Ghostbusters in 1984. Four parapsychology cranks finally are tossed out on their ears from cushy jobs at a state university. Lamenting their predicament, one of them suggests going into business for themselves. Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) expresses his reservations this way: “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results!”
In one brief utterance, Stantz enshrined a cardinal rule of economics in the minds of millions of fans, and no one wondered what he meant. No firm in a free market can long afford to squander its resources on products of dubious value. The tax-funded public sector, however, is another animal altogether. The movie’s villain, by the way, is an arrogant control freak from the EPA whose order to release the spirits incarcerated by the Ghostbusters crew wreaks havoc on New York City.
Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man—a nominee for three 2005 Oscars—is a masterpiece from start to finish, but I especially love an early scene in which boxer James Braddock (Russell Crowe) learns that his young son has stolen a sausage. The family is hungry and destitute at the bottom of the Great Depression. The boy was fearful that, like one of his friends whose parents couldn’t provide enough to eat, he would be sent to live with relatives who could afford the expense. Braddock does not hesitate on the matter for a second. He immediately escorts the boy to the store to return the sausage and apologize to the butcher. He then lectures his son:
“There’s a lot of people worse off than we are. And just because things ain’t easy, that don’t give you the excuse to take what’s not yours, does it? That’s stealing, right? We don’t steal. No matter what happens, we don’t steal. Not ever. You got me?”
His son replies, “Yes,” but Braddock presses the point, two more times: “Are you giving me your word?”
Poverty is no excuse to steal? Private property defended by people who have almost none? Such time-honored, virtuous notions were once commonplace in America, but when Hollywood presents them in a powerfully positive way, it’s truly a Kodak moment. Braddock’s heroism ascends to new heights later in the film when he does what no welfare recipient is ever asked to do and what perhaps not one in a million has ever done: He pays the taxpayers back.
France doesn’t produce many nonsocialists these days, but if his 2001 film Enemy at the Gates is any indication of his political views, director Jean-Jacques Annaud has a big problem with socialism.
By the fall of 1942 two socialist titans—Nazi Germany and the communist USSR—were locked in a death grip around Stalingrad, a city on the Volga and the backdrop to the movie. At center stage is a duel between two snipers—the Russian sharpshooter hero Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and the Nazi marksman Major König (Ed Harris), sent by Hitler to kill him. What the film has to say about the Soviet Union in general and Marxism in particular is almost breathlessly bold for today’s run-of-the-mill leftist filmmaker.
Josef and Adolf
Once the Nazis realize the propaganda value to the Russians of Zaitsev’s superb skills with a rifle, König is dispatched to eliminate him. Zaitsev is assigned a bodyguard (played by Ron Perlman) who, during a momentary lull in the shooting, tells his comrade of a revealing experience. He spent 16 months in Germany before the war (“when our Josef and their Adolf were walking hand in hand,” as Perlman puts it). Back in the USSR later, he was thrown in prison. His teeth were punched out because when asked by interrogators why he’d been in Germany, he explained—truthfully—that Stalin had sent him there. Perlman’s character concludes, “That’s the land of socialism and universal bliss for you.”
My favorite moment came near the end of the film, just before a Soviet propagandist named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) heaves himself into the line of fire. Disillusioned with the cause he’s been fighting for and disgusted with himself for having betrayed Zaitsev, he mutters, “We tried so hard to create a society where everyone was equal, where there was nothing to envy or appropriate. But there is no ‘new man.’ There will always be envy. There will always be rich and poor.” Danilov was not speaking in purely materialist terms. Next he says, “Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.”
Egalitarians in general, and Karl Marx in particular, took it on the chin with that line. In Enemy at the Gates you get none of the numbskull, politically correct romanticization of Marxism that Hollywood shamelessly gave us 20 years before in Warren Beatty’s lamentable Reds.
Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000) features Gibson himself as an American colonist reluctant at first to join the struggle against the king. At a meeting of citizens he resists the call for revolution because he’s not convinced that a colonial government would be any better than British rule. He expresses his skepticism with a question that seems especially poignant today, when our own homegrown government taxes more of our earnings than George III ever imagined he could get away with: “Why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?”
You get the picture. Indeed, maybe a picture ought to be made of nothing but great freedom moments from the silver screen. Short of that, for publication in a monograph longer than space permits here, e-mail me your favorite such moments. If I use your suggestion, you’ll be cited.