Washington Business Journal
Need something to watch? Here are the WBJ’s favorite movies about business.
Jul 17, 2020
Some of the greatest movies of all time are about business — “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather,” just to name a couple. There are also some classics that delve into boardrooms and workplace dynamics, flicks like “Wall Street,” “9 to 5” and “Office Space.”
Those films didn’t make this list.
Below, we’re giving you the Washington Business Journal staff’s favorite movies about business. Some of them are pretty straightforward, while others are a little more tangentially related to commerce and careers.
We hope it offers readers a few options for their screen time as we all soldier through the pandemic hunkered in our homes. There’s plenty of uplift and diversion to be found in the titles below.
And without further ado…
“Glengarry Glen Ross”
“Always be closing.” That’s but one of the immortal lines from the 1992 classic about a corporate trainer coming in to motivate a team of real estate salesmen. A stellar cast including Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin capture all the ego and neuroses of business life, from the high-performer who thinks he can do no wrong, to the veteran salesman having a run of bad luck, to the hard-nosed office manager that refuses to yield an inch. And while it’s about real estate, the story line is relatable to virtually every industry. — Daniel J. Sernovitz
This 1993 classic winds up on many best film lists, and for good reason. “Philadelphia” was nominated, and won, several Academy Awards, including Tom Hanks’ win for best actor. Hanks stars with Denzel Washington as a man working at a Philadelphia law firm fired for his status as an AIDS patient. Washington’s character, after some hesitation, becomes Hanks’ lawyer, representing him in the workplace discrimination trial the movie centers on. — Emily Van Zandt
“It’s a Wonderful Life”
Frank Capra’s 1946 classic is most broadly known as a Christmas movie (and why shouldn’t you have a little Christmas during quarantine?) but I think it also happens to be an excellent film for understanding business and real estate, the industry I cover. George Bailey builds homes and offers mortgages for working-class people — he’s not as rich as the villainous Mr. Potter, perhaps, but he makes intense personal sacrifices in service of giving regular people a leg up. And as his guardian angel, Clarence, reminds us in the film’s closing shot, “No man is a failure who has friends.” — Alex Koma
No matter what business you’re in, “Do more with less” is a refrain you’ve probably heard before. And that’s a key message of 2011’s “Moneyball,” the true(ish) story of the small-market Oakland Athletics’ improbable 2002 run to the MLB playoffs behind a ragtag roster of players built by a general manager who was told, explicitly, to do more with less. I’m a sucker for a good Aaron Sorkin screenplay (he teams here with Steven Zallian), the rise of an underdog and the drama of any sport’s trade deadline, while Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver. And, as Pitt’s Billy Beane asks, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” — Michael Neibauer
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker
Starring Octavia Spencer and Tiffany Haddish, this 2020 Netflix miniseries will inspire you to get started on a business of your own. Based on the true story of the first Black self-made female millionaire, the four-episode series gives you a glimpse into the struggle of being a Black entrepreneur in the early 1900s. Providing a plethora of drama and humor, it walks you through what it takes to build a company from the ground up and establish your legacy. — Norah Mulinda
Is there anything that belongs on a Washington Business Journal movie list more than a film that centers around government contracting? FedBizOpps (RIP) plays a supporting role in this 2016 movie starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill. The basics: Two 20-somethings with zero experience end up bidding on and winning the Department of Defense contracts to support the war in Iraq. As the two attempt to exploit the system for more profit, things don’t go quite according to plan. Consider this squarely in the dark comedy genre. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film is based on this 2011 Rolling Stone article, which is worth a read whether or not you plan on hitting play.) — Emily Van Zandt
This 2002 ensemble has so much of what you would ever want in a movie — humor coupled with depth, an ace cast with strong writing, a relatable premise with a reason to care, the comic timing of Cedric the Entertainer and those lovely eyes of Michael Ealy, a Silver Spring native. And the barbershop that plays its central character has so much of what you would ever want in a business — customer loyalty, authenticity, the unspoken role as the community’s instinctive gathering place. But it’s a gathering place that’s in danger of shutting down because owner Calvin Palmer (played by a brilliantly underplayed Ice Cube) has bigger business aspirations than running a shop that barely pays the bills and that he reluctantly shouldered from his late father. So, he looks to sell. It takes the bulk of the movie for him to realize what he’s giving up, and what effect that hurried business decision could have on his South Side Chicago community. It’s a lesson we’re all learning in real time now, and one that presciently combines perhaps the two biggest news events of our time today. In one, small businesses like his teeter between survival and closure amid a merciless pandemic that could rid so many of our communities of their crucial hubs. And the other is the precious role of the Black-owned barbershop itself and the need for safe places to have truly candid conversations — and constructive arguments — about race and prejudice to make us all better people in the end. And have I mentioned Michael Ealy’s eyes? — Vandana Sinha
You’ve Got Mail
This 1998 Nora Ephron rom-com chronicles independent bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), continuing the legacy her mother started four decades prior as a children’s literature connoisseur beloved by her community in New York City. Then Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) swoops in to open Fox Books, his family’s mega-chain, around the corner. Naturally, Fox becomes Kelly’s nemesis. The problem? Kelly, aka “Shopgirl,” and Fox, screen name “NY152,” met in a chatroom and have since exchanged late-night emails in which they bare their souls but reveal nothing about their personal lives and, therefore, don’t know each other’s identity. So things get dicey when they decide to meet in-person and Fox discovers through a window — before blowing his cover, phew! — that Kelly is his pen pal. (I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say it’s a happy one.)
Yes, the characters’ communication vehicle is dial-up internet-enabled AOL rather than a smartphone app, and yes, the emotional cheating on the protagonists’ significant others feels problematic even though we’re supposed to be rooting for them. But all the same, it’s a modern-day love story riddled with lessons. We learn from Hanks that business isn’t personal, and we learn from Ryan that it is, and we adore them both for it. At its core, “You’ve Got Mail” is a tale about people-the people behind the businesses — and reminds us there’s always a story to tell. — Sara Gilgore
“Thank You for Smoking”
This masterful Aaron Eckhardt and J.K. Simmons juggernaut of corporate greed and political ineptitude hammers home the lesson that objective truth is up for grabs — and for sale. In just 92 minutes, this hilarious, equal-opportunity offender from 2005 showcases how the money-equals-truth ecosystem encompasses Hollywood, television, access journalism and our political systems — and even makes us cheer it on.
Whether it’s Simmons raking his Ivy League minions over the coals for their failure to sell cigarettes (teen smokers are their bread and butter, he exclaims), lobbyists competing over how hard it is to spin the mortality rates of their industries, or protagonist Nick Naylor teaching his kid about B.S. work and subjective truth, this movie teaches a valuable lesson — that the people in charge, writ large, are often incompetent, sociopathic or at best, deeply feckless.
And that the truth, if an industry or person has the talent and money for it, is what you make of it. — Andy Medici
“Up in the Air”
Leave it to George Clooney to make a movie about human resources appealing. Clooney stars with Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga in this 2009 story about an executive who spends a lot of time on the road helping companies handle layoffs. Not the most uplifting topic in tough economic times, but it’s one handled with dark humor. Confession: I have a soft spot for this movie due to its many scenes filmed in St. Louis, including the quirky Cheshire Hotel. — Emily Van Zandt
Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson, a suburban high schooler with an eye on the Ivy League, manages to put his dad’s Porsche into Lake Michigan. To help him out of this pickle, Goodson’s savvy new companion — Rebecca De Mornay in an ace performance as Lana — brings her city friends over to turn his week home alone into, well, let’s call it a workshop on free enterprise. Business maxims abound in this 1983 teen romp, one of the first and best-written in a reliably high-grossing genre still with us today. Oh, and we can thank this movie for Ray-Bans.
Yes, the film’s lasting image is Cruise dancing in his skivvies to Bob Seeger, a complete improvisation from the then-21-year-old actor. But it’s the score from electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream that really sets this one apart, making it transcend in places where many films fall flat. — Drew Hansen
Beyond being a powerful story with a star-studded cast that passed the Bechdel test years before it was cool, this 1989 Herbert Ross film teaches a lot about what it means for a business to be a good neighbor. The original play takes place entirely inside Truvy’s, the hair salon owned and operated by Truvy Jones, played in the film by Dolly Parton. It’s easy to understand why. She has cultivated her salon to be a place where people come to consider the most important moments of their lives. It’s not accidental either. Truvy specifically forbids radios in her salon in order to promote conversation. She doesn’t just talk at her clients — though she does spout wisdom to them often — she also listens. A business may be essential, but few can boast at being so quintessential, as Truvy’s was, to their communities that folks will consider it a meeting point before a wedding or to commiserate after a funeral. — Jonathan Caprie
Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd are the subjects of an awful sociological experiment-slash-$1 bet orchestrated by a pair of terrible, old, rich men — in this classic comedy. Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III is framed for selling dope, dumped by his fiancee and tossed out on the street, while Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine, a conman, is thrust into an executive position in a Philadelphia-based investment firm. All because the millionaire Duke brothers can’t agree whether a person is the product of his/her environment, or born with successful genes.
If this 1983 film was your first introduction to the New York Stock Exchange as Valentine and Winthorpe set their plan of revenge into motion (it was mine), this was what you learned: “In this building, it’s either kill or be killed. You make no friends in the pits and you take no prisoners. One minute you’re up half a million in soybeans and the next, boom, your kids don’t go to college and they’ve repossessed your Bentley.”https://27cf2bf19aef0d1e50d265f89fd52bd1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Or maybe you remember Aykroyd announcing on the stock exchange floor, “Sell 30 April at 142!” Chaos. Frenzy. Frozen concentrated orange juice.
Classic. — Michael Neibauer
This comedy from Jim Abrahams is not heavy — a business movie for this moment. The classic mistaken-identity farce features the comedic genius of Lily Tomlin and the slapstick energy of Bette Midler to hilarious effect. The 1988 film mostly passes the Bechdel test, though it gets minus-1 for a male character asking if the female CEO’s outburst “could be hormonal.” (Mister D: Yeah, Kind of like real life STILL) The ending is satisfying. The outfits are amazing. There’s even an 8-year-old Seth Green cameo as Midler’s hellion son. Most of all, the movie is authentic in a key point: the shareholders of big, evil Moramax ultimately do the right thing, not because of ethics, but rather because they’re moved by this base appeal from Tomlin as Moramax principal Rose Shelton: “We appeal to your basic business instinct … to save your own asses!” — Rebecca Cooper
“The Social Network”
Let’s first take a second to acknowledge one of the tag lines of this 2010 David Fincher film: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” I’m genuinely curious if Mark Zuckerberg now believes he has 1.7 billion friends, but I digress.
The surely exaggerated tale of Zuckerberg’s finagling and scheming to seize ownership of the digital drug known as Facebook is laced with scandals, lawsuits and double-crossings — essentially all the ingredients that make for a fun ride when you mix friends with business.
The Zuck is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, who joins forces at Harvard to launch the social network with Eduardo Saverin, portrayed by Andrew Garfield. Zuckerberg brings in Napster founder and Herndon native Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who would go on serve as the company’s first president and ultimately paves the way for Saverin to get “Zuckerberged.
This movie is interesting and well-acted with a strong cast to boot. It’s funny, smart and most impressively takes a 160-page script and fits it into two hours. As a story about the rise of a company that now gives people from your high school the platform to promote their pyramid schemes, it’s extremely relevant and worth a watch. —Katishi Maake
“The Big Short”
This 2015 comedy-drama from Adam McKay does an incredible job making the complexities of the bond market marginally understandable and dubiously entertaining. There’s a great cast (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, to name a few) and an irreverent script based on the 2010 Michel Lewis book of the same name, but it’s the depth of the story and the colorful, real characters that makes it a consistent rewatch.
The business maxim I think the film provides is no matter the financial innovation or the flashy trend, business comes back to the fundamentals, the risks of an investment and the amount of potential exposure you might take. — Carten Cordell
This movie from 2000, starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, is a pretty faithful adaptation of the 1991 novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis.
The character of Bateman is a psychopath with murderous habits that eventually catch up to him (sort of). But by day, he’s an investment banker working in mergers and acquisitions for fictional Wall Street firm Pierce & Pierce. He is consumed with keeping up appearances as a successful professional, taking care in everything from his elaborate skin care routine, to his suits, his discourse on international affairs, his wealthy and beautiful fiancée, and booking tables at the hottest upscale restaurants. He sometimes goes out after hours with his co-workers, but even then, he’s still studying how he can appear better to them more than he’s able to enjoy himself.https://27cf2bf19aef0d1e50d265f89fd52bd1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
In one scene at the office, he seems to have an existential crisis over a casual comparison of business cards among his colleagues. He thinks privately, “I can’t believe that Bryce prefers Van Patten’s card to mine.” When he sees the card of his personal rival, Paul Allen, he’s filled with jealous anxiety, breaking out in a sweat as he thinks, “Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh, my God. It even has a watermark.” It seems the only time he can truly relax and let down his guard is when he kills.
Don’t be like Patrick Bateman. Obviously, don’t kill people. But also, try not to let the pressure to be perfect get to you at work, and don’t bother comparing yourself to others. In his obsession with appearance, he finds out that his real reputation was that of a shallow, brown-nosing phony — no one was really all that impressed. — Carolyn M. Proctor