The credit crunch might be getting you down, but for a bargain price you can check out an eerily prophetic film about financial crisis, as Kim explores.
A Wall Street panic causes a run on American banks, triggering the collapse of the dollar and other international currencies, a complete loss of confidence in financial institutions and a global economic crisis. No, not this week’s (or, more scarily, next week’s) headlines, but the climax of director Alan J. Pakula’s 1981 movie Rollover, which Leonard Maltin quite properly labels ‘one of the few examples of financial science fiction’. It’s a tiny sub-genre — more or less owned in literature by economist Paul Erdman, whose 1976 novel The Crash of ’79 has a fairly similar premise — but current events suggest we should have been paying more attention to it than worrying about the Earth being hit by a meteor or the Antichrist being elected to high office.
The frustrating thing about Rollover is that it now seems too timid. Most of the running time concerns a low-wattage romance between maverick banker Hubbell Smith (Kris Kristofferson) and movie-star-turned-oil-company-chairwoman Lee Winters (Jane Fonda) with a mystery angle kicked off when a sinister hit man kills Lee’s businessman husband because he has found out about the dreaded ‘account 21214’.
It certainly isn’t the best of Pakula’s run of gloomy, they’re-out-to-get-you conspiracy paranoia movies — which include the Fonda-starring Klute, the Warren Beatty assassination picture The Parallax View and the true-life All the President’s Men. A typical Pakula moment has Lee, unnerved by the thought that she can’t trust anyone, ordering her maid ‘Nettie, first thing tomorrow, change all the locks in the house’ — of course, ‘they’ come for her that evening, though it’s the good guy who slips into her home rather than the hired killer.
Fonda clearly inhabits a tailor-made role and is coolly stunning in a succession of understated frocks, while a beardless Kristofferson is cast against his cowboy type as a financial hotshot who looks as good as Fonda when posing hands-on-hips in conservative suits that have dated a lot better than the fashionable outfits Richard Gere wears in the contemporary American Gigolo.
It’s clear from the outset that Pakula is less interested in mystery (even the widow scarcely expresses concern about her husband’s murder and any police investigation fails to intersect with the plot) than the edgy, creepy, science fiction-seeming scenes of currency trading in a cavernous Manhattan office. The printers and screens may be obsolete, but contemporary audiences probably have more understanding of what’s going on in these scenes than the few who saw the film on its initial release (it wasn’t a hit).
In the opening sequence, the room has to trade a hundred million dollars overseas before a currency fluctuation — of course, made worse by the dumping — leads to a catastrophic shortfall at the already-struggling institution. We return to this setting for the finale, which is triggered by a mass withdrawal of all the funds held in American banks by Saudi Arabian companies as oil sheiks abandon the wobbly dollar in favour of trustworthy gold bullion, and Pakula gets a sense of the end of the world (‘as you know it’, comments an Arab) in a set-piece 360º pan around the room, with the stunned traders fading away to be replaced by dust-covers over all the work stations.
We get footage of riots outside banks all round the world — and hints that various politicians (even the Pope) have been unable to cope — but it’s all manipulated stock news material. It ends enigmatically with Hub and Lee, who have almost turned on each other for complicated reasons, starting over again, but what audiences want is probably a Roland Emmerich-style grand scale disaster-and-recovery scenario about the gun-toting folks in the monetary ruins struggling to get by in a world without paper money.
All good conspiracy movies need a Machiavellian mastermind as villain, and Rollover has Hume Cronyn’s banking genius Maxwell Emory, who is abetting the Saudis in their mass transaction but trying to take things slowly to avoid the inevitable disaster. Emory is also the employer of the hit man (Alex Wipf), who turns up again late in the day to menace the heroine and give the hero a chance to snatch her from a speeding car to provide a burst of action.
Looking at what little has been written about the film, it’s interesting that Rollover irked both conservatives (who note the prominently liberal leading actors, and complain the film is as alarmist about capitalism as the Fonda-starring The China Syndrome is about nuclear power stations) and leftists (who deplore the depicition of inscrutibly evil Arabs as the ultimate baddies — complete with a scene in which the dainty heroine is flustered as burnoused bigwigs tear into a roast sheep with bare hands).
Across-the-board criticism like this is usually a badge of honour, but here it tends to highlight the area in which the film’s prophetic vision hasn’t matched the reality — as the critic Brad Stevens noted, Pakula and his screenwriters David Shaber, Howard Kohn and David Weir (like Erdman) blame ‘the crazy Arabs’ for the calamity, whereas in real life it’s been ‘the crazy Americans’ at fault. However, in that financial gobbledegook chatter critics couldn’t follow in 1981 are a few lines which now resonate — mentions of ‘problem loans’ and ‘Fanny Maes’.
The underlying message, even of the love story (the film’s strapline is ‘the most erotic thing in their world was money’), is that it’s a potentially catastrophic system which looks at finance as shuffling numbers around rather than literally counting the cost in human suffering. Pakula was on the money in his 1970s films, which tended to concentrate on the political arena, but Rollover came too early to be the summation of 1980s financial finagling Oliver Stone managed in Wall Street, whose Gordon Gecko is far more the monster bogeyman of finance than Cronyn’s gnome-like middleman manipulator. A scene in which Hub laboriously tries several passwords to enter Emory’s computer system and access the 21214 account transactions is an early instance of what would become a cliché of the cyber-thriller, and we’ve all seen it done with much more impressive bangs and whistles in the likes of Mission: Impossible (there isn’t even any added tension in the fact that the incriminating data has to be printed out as several yards of folding paper rather than downloaded to a flash-stick).
However, it’s possible that Rollover had its sights set too far head — a quarter of a century on, it’s more pertinent than Wall Street, and probably ought to have been required viewing at treasuries around the world.