“Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime the moment they finish their breakfast.” He’s FBI agent Brian Shepard in the 2009 movie The Informant.
And Kenneth Dowler and Daniel Antonowicz use this quote to open their fascinating new book – Corporate wrongdoing on film: ‘Audience be damned’ (Routledge, 2022).
Dowler and Antonowicz are professors in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.
Dowler is a movie buff. He watched movies all his life. And he’s seen plenty of films about corporate crime and wrongdoing in his lifetime. But while researching the book, he looked at a lot more.
Overall, how would you rate Hollywood and how they portray corporate crime?
“Generally, the issue is really ignored,” Dowler said. Corporate crime reporter in an interview last month. “There are fantastic films coming, films like Erin Brockovich, Dark Waters, A Civil Action. These are the ones we all remember. But if you look at the top ten, you’re looking at superhero movies and movies that wouldn’t make audiences think about corporate crime.
“They basically suggest you can’t make an entertaining corporate crime movie. But with the right director and screenwriter, you can bring these movies to life on the screen. These films can be very convincing. The Big Short deals with a complex set of facts, but they’ve done a good job of making it accessible.
You say that only a handful of corporate crime movies end up in the box office top 50 – Erin Brockovich, The China Syndrome, Norma Rae, Silkwood, Civil Action. Dark Waters finished at 116.
You write that audiences are more interested in spending their money watching superheroes than telling stories about corporate crime.
There may be superheroes fighting corporate crime. And often they do. Is the public not interested or is Hollywood not interested?
“Hollywood is made of big business. They had an agenda. They’re playing on this idea that maybe people aren’t interested in corporate crime. But then a movie like Erin Brockovich comes along and catches their eye.
“Look at the harm done to workers. The film industry has been anti-union and anti-worker. And there aren’t many movies that portray union issues as a whole. But Hollywood also likes simple narratives.
Just a quick search on Hollywood and corporate and the first article that pops up is du Toronto Globe and Mail titled – Why Hollywood Hates Capitalism by Rick Groen. Business think tanks constantly attack Hollywood for portraying business in a bad light.
“We talked about it a bit. Hollywood is liberal on some issues. But the reality is that the vast majority of depictions of crime – it’s street crime, not corporate crime. You have very few representations of companies committing these crimes. There are a few films from the 1950s – Patterns and Executive Suite. I’ve read articles where these pro-business professors watching these movies saw something completely different from when I watched the movie.
“I would say Hollywood is pretty conservative. Blockbuster movies like Jaws were just trying to keep audiences in the movies, eating their popcorn, and not thinking about corporate crime or social justice. Hollywood can play a real role in keeping the public under control.
You tell the story of the making of the movie Citizen Kane and the backlash during the McCarthy era.
“During the filming of Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst was upset with the way he was portrayed in the film. And he ended up trying to ban that film from appearing in theaters. He even tried to bribe the head of the studio that released it.
“Again, they managed to get the movie out. And it didn’t get a lot of viewership. In fact, when they won the Oscar for the movie, audiences booed Orson Welles for the portrayal.
You write the following:
“Heart’s journals targeted Welles as a communist sympathizer and questioned his patriotism. Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios even offered RKO Studio President George Schaefer $842,000 to destroy the negative and all prints of Citizen Kane. After refusing to distribute the film, Schaefer threatened to sue movie chains Fox, Paramount and Loews. In the end, the channels conceded and authorized some screenings, allowing the film to break even financially. Despite the difficulties, the film was nominated for nine Oscars, only winning one for best screenplay, with Welles being booed roundly at the ceremony.
Dowler says “there was a concerted effort to make sure this movie didn’t get released”.
“Another movie was a 1940 movie called Boom Town. At the end of that movie, there was a monologue by Spencer Tracy about antitrust laws. Mayer had been beating those antitrust laws for years. And he hated the idea of This movie came out and gave this monologue about American capitalism and how these antitrust laws are not in the spirit of capitalism.
“Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, you couldn’t have progressive ideas in film because of the possibility of censorship. Even the best films, like Grapes of Wrath, are a little muted in their presentation. They know they won’t be shown in theaters if they aren’t restricted.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic. I learned from your book that the FBI considered the film communist propaganda and kept the film on its list of communist films. There was even a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing on It’s a Wonderful Life. What impact has the HUAC had on Hollywood?
“It had a huge impact at the time. Many people were blacklisted. In the book, I talk about the movie Salt of the Earth. It was a movie that was banned for 30 to 40 years. The film was about a mining strike, many people who were blacklisted were involved in the production of this film.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, you didn’t see films that criticized capitalism. So it had a lasting impact. Even though there are films that criticize capitalism, there is usually a happy ending. The idea is that America and capitalism will continue to succeed. The narrative is that even though there are problems, it’s still the best system in the world.
“Today there are more opportunities for different viewpoints.”
What are some of your favorite corporate crime movies?
“If I had to choose one, it would be Dark Waters. It had everything you want in a movie. It fits all the hallmarks of corporate crime.
“Bread and Roses by Ken Lynch. It was a film from 2000. This film was very powerful. This was a maids union organization in Los Angeles. It’s about how these people are mistreated. The theme of the film is that these janitors are not treated like human beings.
“Bitter Harvest is a hard movie to find. I had to follow this one on a DVD. Bitter Harvest is a 1981 television movie starring Ron Howard. It’s a film about a farmer whose cattle were contaminated with PBB. A large percentage of Michigan’s population has this chemical forever in their system because they mixed the fertilizer with a flame retardant chemical. The film didn’t shine a light on the role of the company, but it did show how dangerous it can be when these companies engage in these reckless actions.
“Minamata is another good one. I really liked this movie.”
Minamata was trashed by critics. Why did you like it?
“I don’t know why it was ransacked. Johnny Depp’s acting can sometimes be a bit over the top. But I liked the way they described the victims. There was a famous photo of one of the victims of mercury poisoning. I liked the way they showed the victims and the grassroots reaction to society. They showed the victims as real human beings and the disastrous consequences of the company’s actions. It was a very human film.
“Some reviews focused on Johnny Depp. I was focusing on victims and children in hospitals. And that’s a story that needs to be told. People need to know the consequences of actions taken and how society covered them up. and denied.”
“Sometimes you read movie reviews and think — maybe this movie won’t be so good. I had this reaction too. I thought going to some of these movies – it was going to be awful. And then you watch the movie and you say – it’s actually a really good movie and it illustrates a lot of things that we need to know about crime and corporate wrongdoing.
[For the complete q/a format Interview with Kenneth Dowler, see 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 22(12), May 30, 2022, print edition only.]