Saturday, 7 March 2020


Reader be warned! This enquiry into Michael Winterbottom’s new film is the latest in a long line of posts which aren’t proper reviews at all but still manage to involve plot spoilers.

Steve Coogan stars as Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie. Who, in the thinnest of veils since Arturo Ui turned out to be Hitler, bears more than a passing career resemblance to retail tycoon Philip Green. (Just one of many egregious incidents here.) It even cribs a much-shown television scene where he snapped at a member of a government committee for “looking at me”. Despite the fact he was before the committee at the time.

Which makes it part of the same set as ‘The Social Network’, ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Brexit the Uncivil War’. All of which take as their protagonist anti-villains, characters who weaponise their own sociopathy to get results in a society which venerates that.

But there’s a significant distinction. When ‘Brexit the Uncivil War’ and - especially - ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ got seduced by their own subjects, so becoming of the devil’s party whether or not they knew it, ’Greed’ is unashamedly anti. It’s there to bury not praise Philip Green, giving McCreadie an absurdly hubristic caesar outfit, having an employee call him a “bully” and a “parasite”, and ending with infographics on the exploitational nature of the fashion industry.

And what’s interesting about that distinction is that it tries so hard and yet fails. Which doesn’t stop it being a good film, in the sense of being well constructed, entertaining and involving to watch. The problem doesn’t lie in the execution. The problem lies in the premise.

You can see the problem. How else could it be done? There’s points where the hack journo, brought in to write a puff piece on McCreadie, stumbles across so much dirt that he seems about to switch to the other side. Except how can a film’s twist reveal something you knew before going in, before you even knew this film existed? You might as well try and work a twist into ‘The Hobbit’ where the gold-hoarding dragon turns out to be a gold-hoarding dragon.

We already know, all of us, that the “wealth creators” rhetoric is rubbish. We all notice when they take credit for opening businesses, then blame their closing down on “the market”. We just file away that knowledge, just as we knew not to question the school bully. Our acquiescence not seeming much of a story, the camera naturally shifts over to point at them. They’re where the action is.

Of course Green might well be delighted with all this attention. But that’s not the problem. Satire wasn’t derailed by Michael Hestletine wanting to buy his ‘Spitting Image’ puppet, even though people are always saying it was. The targets of satire are not the same as its audience, it’s not a roundabout means to embarrass those targets into better behaviour. Its audience is us, the success or failure of the film lies in its effect upon us.

The point about Belfort and Green is that they’ve managed to transform monetary power into cultural power. They’ve become celebrity businessmen. So handing them more celebrity is like those who shared the racist rantings of UKIP supporters to expose them, blithely unaware that exposure was precisely what they were after. (And another function of this is that they take the flak from the non-celebrity businessman. The owner of the fashion retailer Zara is even richer than Green. I don’t even know his name off-hand.) But it’s more than that…

Take the repeated scenes where McCreadie walks away from deals until the price falls. (There’s only one where they even compromise, the others he wins outright.) This is presented as down to his strength of personality, his hard-headed business acumen. Intangible qualities we don’t seem to possess. Just the way you imagine the real Green sees it. And this spins the circularity of their logic. “I must be special because I am so rich. And I got rich because I am so special.”

But that’s not the way it works. It’s not because, to use another repeat scene, he’s great at cards. It’s because he’s holding the cards. When Green sold BHS it was for a pound. Was his strength of personality missing that day, or was he no longer in a buyer’s market?

Green, Cummings, Belfort and Zuckerberg make themselves out as larger-than-life colourful characters. But they simply aren’t. They’re the banality of evil personified. They succeed because they benefit from a system built to benefit them, like winning cards with a rigged deck. They’re symptoms, not the disease.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t pretend to have a solution. It manufactures a timely demise and appropriate comeuppance for McCreadie. (Green is unfortunately yet to do something useful like feed a hungry animal.) But it makes clear that not only will his estranged son take his place, his being so estranged will make this easier. This isn’t the way old family shops would proudly add “and son” to their sign, secure in the knowledge he’d diligently keep the business running as an heirloom for his own kids. He will slash and burn his way through it, just as Green did the enterprises he took over.

If you ask what Philip Green is like, “he’s a self-serving arsehole and sponging spiv” isn’t a very surprising answer. But more to the point it isn’t a very useful answer. The real question is - what do we do about bullies and parasites like Philip Green?

The presumption is that we Little People, constrained by groupthink such as moral codes, need these Big People who function outside of all that. So they can do the stuff we can’t. Yes we do lack agency but that’s not down to personal lapses, it’s because we live in a society organised around denying us that agency. 

Proving the Big People are Bad People doesn’t undermine any of that, they just claim to be necessary monsters. (We’re told he gave himself the nickname Greedy McCreadie, as a sort of self-mythologising stunt.) Think of those who readily concede Trump’s boorish behaviour and reality-deficient ranting is “unpresidential”, but consider that the inevitable price of having “a strong man in charge”.

What we need to do is break this absurd binary. And you do that by reversing the perspective, stopping seeing them as the centres of gravity around which the rest of us orbit. Many years ago Joe Strummer sang “I don’t want to know what the rich are doing.” We were smarter then.

And what sort of film could do that? We need to switch the camera back until it focuses on us again. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the masses won’t turn out for ‘Sorry We Missed You’. (Even if I suspect people prejudge Loach films as worthy drudges, when they’re actually quite compelling to watch.) But, and I mean this entirely seriously, what about ‘Joker’? A film which starts by homing in on the little guy standing on the street outside a closing-down store, not the corporate bozo who shut the store.

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