When the world became industrialized, the landscape of the world, both economically and culturally, drastically changed. The shift increased the size and influence of corporations worldwide which in turn led to floods of ambitious businessmen looking to work for powerful entities.
This influx of people and money formed the modern day corporate culture, filled with success and hope as well as cutthroat competition which often leads to devastation and treachery. Naturally, much art and media in the 20th century and on focused on this prosperous but risk-filled environment, so of course some of history’s greatest filmmakers approached the subject eagerly.
The films on this list may come from a variety of countries, eras and focus on different sorts of corporations but the similar portrayals of the stress involved with the culture are strikingly similar. Among the many human themes explored in these works, some of the most notable are the balancing of work and personal life, the ethics of business, ambition and desensitization to emotion.
The environment lends itself to various different genres as well, including wacky comedies, dystopian science fiction and gritty corporate dramas. The list that follows is a diverse selection of the many films made about this subject, showing the common themes and the widespread influence the corporations possess worldwide.
15. Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2005)
A satirical look at big business and tobacco especially, this film follows the exploits of smoking lobbyist Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, as he tries to coerce the American public into making smoking popular again.
Backed by questionable research by the corporation funded “Academy of Tobacco Studies” he speaks in public at press conferences as well as arranging deals with Hollywood execs to promote the presence of cigarettes in culture. After a media firestorm that costs him his job, Naylor must reevaluate his life and the ethics of his job while staying a strong role model for his son.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley. While for the most part, the novel and the film are very similar there is a noticeable difference in their depiction of the tobacco industry in particular. Unlike the novel, Reitman’s film lampoons big business in general, focusing more on the entirety of the corporate world and cuts back on the heavy indictment of tobacco like the book does.
The most interesting aspect of this film, however, is the uncertain morality of the entire story because although the viewer knows many of Naylor’s actions are wrong, the film makes him a sympathetic character and by the end of the film his actions have not changed much.
14. Vampire’s Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1989)
Polarizing many viewers and critics with its wacky absurdity, this cult-classic, B-movie dark comedy is incredibly unique, if not bewildering. Nicolas Cage stars as Peter Loew, an ambitious corporate manager at a publishing agency.
After an encounter with a girl he met at a club, Loew begins to lose his mental stability, believing himself to be transforming into a vampire. His delusions increase as a stressful project at work continue and he takes out his frustrations on his assistant Alva. Soon, Loew in convinced he is definitely a vampire and goes out looking for fresh blood which yields disastrous results.
The delusions of Peter Loew are meant to reflect both the stress caused by his job and the masculine egotism of the corporate world. Although admittedly the film is not a polished masterpiece, its campy charm is both hilarious and unsettling. The saving grace of the film is most certainly Cage’s brilliant, over-the-top performance, transforming a successful exec into a deranged lunatic acting like a vampire.
There is simply no other performance in film that approaches this level of ridiculousness and daring. Even if a low-grade dark comedy doesn’t sound appealing, Vampire’s Kiss is worth watching if only to see Cage’s fascinating portrayal.
13. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute, 1997)
This disturbing exploration of the chauvinist values of management and corporate culture is about as dark as comedies come. Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy star as two managers at a branch, Chad and Howard, who engage in a game in order to relieve stress and their frustration with women.
The game entails that they each romance the same woman and then each break up with her to mess with her emotions. They choose a deaf woman at their office as the victim, but as the game goes on, Howard begins to fall for her and eventually reveals their plan, causing, of course, heartbreak.
While the game progresses, Howard, who is initially in charge of the branch gets demoted after several accidents and Chad rises up in the ranks. This parallels with Howard’s increase in conscience, commenting on the corporate world’s priorities and accepted values.
Chad’s alpha male, misogynistic personality is perfectly suited for management life, and his lack of empathy for those around him is precisely what’s necessary for business success. In the Company of Men is a brilliant criticism of managerial culture in the form of a devastating story.
12. The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)
Another film about the tobacco industry, The Insider is based on the true story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, played here by Russell Crowe, who testified against his former employer Brown & WIlliamson Tobacco Company, who were adding extra nicotine to their cigarettes.
After Wigand is fired, he is approached by CBS producer Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, who wants to interview Wigand for a segment on “60 Minutes”, but they are nervous due to a confidentiality clause that would let Big Tobacco sue them. Eventually, however, they go through with the interview and the tobacco industry tries to stop it from airing by attacking Wigand’s credibility in newspapers and issuing him death threats.
Mann’s film was quite accurate to the story, and a very polished corporate thriller. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards that year as well as further educate the public on the grip that corporations have on the media and laws. The film is one of the more aggressive views of how dangerous and stressful this environment can be, and the fact that it is based on a true story makes it all the more frightening. As important as it is thrilling, The Insider is a first-rate film from a terrific thriller director.
11. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
This outrageous and true memoir of 1980s stockbroker Jordan Belfort who rose to riches through illegal methods and crashed after he was found out by the FBI. Belfort is played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of the greatest performances of his career, who brilliantly portrays Belfort’s transformation from a naive broker into a aggressive and manipulative tycoon.
He rises up in wealth and fame, making friends with fellow broker Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill, and finding a beautiful new wife, played by Margot Robbie. As his empire grows bigger, his fraudulent activities catch the attention of the federal government and he must try to cover up his actions.
Scorsese’s film of corruption and greed is one of his most energetic films to date, filled with hilarious gags makinging it his most profitable film by far. Belfort’s debaucherous Wall Street life is shown through in depth, uncensored parties and heavy drug use. Because Belfort and his friends are cheating the system, much of the typical themes of stress are absent.
Replacing them is tension from the authorities and Belfort struggling to maintain his empire and family. Even with a massive runtime, The Wolf of Wall Street is one of Scorsese’s most gripping and entertaining films, and certainly his funniest.
10. The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960)
Kurosawa loved adapting Shakespeare plays into different environments for his films, this time taking the bard’s classic “Hamlet” and moving it to corporate Japan. Toshiro Mifune stars as Koichi Nishi, a man whose father was forced to kill himself in order to protect the higher corporate officials from fraud and bribery charges.
Nishi infiltrates the company, working his way up to secretary of the president, hoping to incriminate those responsible for his father’s death. Nishi has also married the vice president of the company’s daughter in order to get closer in his trust. Nishi’s plans, however, soon become discovered leading to a deadly and tragic ending.
The corporate environment displayed in this film is one of the most evil of all the films on this list, actually forcing the employees of the firm to die. Although this may be a little more understandable in the honor-focused culture of Japan, the overall themes and drive of the characters can be applied to business-oriented societies worldwide.
Kurosawa, however, departs from simply the corporate environment to create a complex crime thriller, bringing up discussions on loyalty and morality in addition to the workplace stresses. An often overlooked gem in Kurosawa’s filmography, The Bad Sleep Well is a masterfully crafted, twisting thriller.
9. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Dutch science fiction director Paul Verhoeven made many socially critical science fiction films like Starship Troopers, Total Recall but Robocop is his first and greatest venture into the genre. Set in a fictional future Detroit that has fallen even further into crime and poverty, the police force of the city has become privatized.
When police officer Alex Murphy is brutally attacked and almost killed by the gang of Clarence Boddicker, played excellently by Kurtwood Smith, Omni corporation, who owns the police force, turns Murphy into a cyborg officer or “Robocop”. Programmed to uphold the law, Murphy serves to crack down on the crime of the city and the corruption in Omni Corp, all the while trying to piece together his history as his memory has been erased.
In addition to the bloody, slick action of the film, it acts as a satire of the increasing reliance on corporations and technology of the world. Almost thirty years later, its message is more relevant than ever as the ideas in the film are becoming closer and closer to reality.
The cutthroat competition between management shown here is almost as sinister as the bad guys with guns. Robocop is an exceptional science fiction film with great action and social commentary that is as powerful now as it was when it came out.