The explosive relationship between people and their financial identities — our inner bulls or bears, nice guys vs. NYSE guys — is the crux of a new Hollywood film, Money Monster. Opening May 12 and premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the financial thriller features George Clooney as a Jim Cramer-type who glibly offers stock tips on his TV show. When a young, hard-working man (Jack O’Connell) loses his family’s savings on one of those tips, he takes Clooney’s character, Lee Gates, hostage on live TV, makes him wear a suicide vest and demands answers.
Director Jodie Foster said that the film is not meant to be a polemic against capitalism. “We’re not saying in this film that the system is wrong. But what we are saying is that there are abuses to the system that are built into human nature,” she told Fortune. “Many of our ideas of value about ourselves are unfortunately commingled with ones or zeros: ‘If I’ve got more zero’s [in my bank account], I’m more valuable. If you have less zero’s, you’re less valuable.’”
In doing research for the TriStar Pictures $30 million film, Foster said she met with “hedge fund managers, brokers, traders, regular investment guys. I went to the floor, the whole thing. We ran the gamut.” She said she also got live TV tips from behind-the-scenes production teams at CBS, which let Foster film the movie’s interiors at its west side facilities in Manhattan.
Clooney’s Gates is like a carnival barker ringing the Opening Bell. Holding court on the set of his show — which is also titled “Money Monster” — Gates dons a gold top hat and does a hip-hop grind when he’s got a hot tip, and throws around prop axes and wild-man shtick while his producer, Patty (Julia Roberts), talks to him through his earpiece. Yet Gates has no answers when confronted by the young man, Kyle, whose investments in a shady stock went south due to a “glitch.”
Cramer, the host of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” in 2008 told his viewers that “Bear Stearns is not in trouble … Don’t move your money from Bear,” five days before the brokerage firm’s stock fell a whopping 92 percent. Which led to a celebrated, 2009 takedown by The Daily Show host Jon Stewart.
Foster insisted she had never watched Cramer when she read the “Monster” script several years ago — nor did she model it on Cramer and his show. “I didn’t know Cramer then, and Cramer would [likely say], very heatedly, ‘This is not based on Jim Cramer!’ There are a lot of financial hosts, he’s just the most famous,” she said, adding, “We saw the character of Lee Gates as somebody who likes martinis, mahogany bars and Dean Martin, an old-fashioned, retro guy in this new technology world. Jim Cramer is definitely not that!”
Still, her critique of Gates’ character is not that far from what Stewart said in his 2009 interview with Cramer. “Gates represents, in general, a lack of responsibility to —not celebrity, that’s the wrong word — but to the ‘cult of personality,'” Foster said. “People need to be conscious of the fact that this kind of stuff is involving people’s lives.” Stewart was a bit blunter, saying what CNBC and Cramer had done was “disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.”
Money Monster paints an overheated but not unrealistic depiction of back-room shenanigans and the tech-based dangers of algorithmic trading. When the stock, Ibis Clear Capital, mysteriously collapses due to a “glitch,” an unscrupulous CEO played by Dominic West indicates he may know what caused the glitch that was Kyle’s undoing.
“We didn’t make the idea of a ‘glitch’ up,” Foster says, noting in 2012, a trading software “technology issue” at the financial services firm Knight Capital Group sent incorrect orders in securities, resulting in the company’s $440 million pre-tax loss. “When Knight Capital went down in 2012 over the course of, like, 20 minutes, the entire company collapsed in one day.”
Foster acknowledges that, in 2016, “Money Monster’s” edgy, “Dog Day Afternoon”-style intersection of media overload and failed American Dream seems easy to believe. “Kyle is a guy who did everything right. He worked hard, he saved his money and listened to a TV expert and took that person’s advice for what is safe — and that’s why he’s enraged,” she said. “He basically got swindled. Twenty years ago, if I’d pitched this story, people would have said, ‘Oh, wow, it’s a satire, right?’ But not so much anymore.”
Joe Neumaier is a New York-based film journalist. He’s the on-air critic for WOR-710AM and has written for Time, the New York Times, EW, and the New York Post. He was formerly the Chief Film Critic and Film Editor at the New York Daily News.