(Note: This is part two of a look at movies with a free-market theme. Here is part one.)
Capitalists usually are vilified on the silver screen as greedy and heartless — while statists of every stripe are depicted as selfless, romantic idealists who only want to help people. If an entrepreneurial enterprise depicted in films is either "private" or "profit"-motivated, it’s routinely denigrated.
One exception, however, is Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which champions a refreshingly free-market viewpoint of entrepreneurship and progress. Willy Wonka (played by Johnny Depp), the film’s eccentric candy manufacturer, is at heart the quintessential rags-to-riches businessman, starting with a street corner candy shop and, through innovations such as inventing ice cream that stays cold without a freezer, becomes the world’s largest candy producer.
With "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" being one of several exceptions, the silver screen typically recycles the refrain that technological progress is the nemesis of the typical citizen. The reader will recognize these familiar cinematic tropes: A new factory, shopping mall or interstate highway replaces a picturesque wilderness; the arrival of a large retailer leaves local business owners destitute; or the introduction of machinery renders many employees jobless.
Viewers may be forgiven for thinking that "Charlie" will follow suit, although they will be pleasantly surprised. Charlie Bucket’s father (Noah Taylor) loses his job screwing caps onto toothpaste tubes because a machine is invented that performs the task much faster. However, the film then takes a different approach. When Charlie’s father worked at the toothpaste factory, "the hours were long and the pay was terrible," and his family could barely afford enough cabbage to put in their soup. At the end of the film, however, Charlie’s father gets a new job repairing the machines that replaced his job at the toothpaste factory. The narrator exclaims that "things had never been better for the Bucket family," a fact confirmed visually by a feast brimming the Buckets’ dinner table. For once, a film exhibits that progress in the market means better opportunities for everyone.
Ron Howard’s "Cinderella Man" — a nominee for "Best Picture" of 2005 — features an early scene in which boxer James Braddock (played by Russell Crowe) learns that his young son has stolen a sausage. The family is hungry and destitute during the depths of the Great Depression. Braddock immediately escorts the boy to the store to return the sausage and apologize to the butcher. He then lectures his son:
"There’s a lot of people worse off than we are. And just because things ain’t easy, that don’t give you the excuse to take what’s not yours, does it? That’s stealing, right? We don’t steal. No matter what happens, we don’t steal. Not ever. You got me?"
Poverty is no excuse to steal? Private property defended by people who have almost none? Such time-honored, virtuous notions were once commonplace in America, but when Hollywood presents them in a powerfully positive way, it’s truly a Kodak moment. Braddock’s heroism ascends to new heights later in the film when he does what no welfare recipient is ever asked to do and what perhaps not one in a million has ever done: He pays the taxpayers back.
If his 2001 film, "Enemy at the Gates," is any indication, director Jean-Jacques Annaud has a big problem with socialism. What the film has to say about the Soviet Union in general and Marxism in particular is almost breathlessly bold for today’s run-of-the-mill leftist filmmaker.
In the film, a bodyguard played by Ron Perlman relates a revealing experience. After spending 16 months in Germany before the war ("when our Joseph and their Adolf were walking hand in hand," as Perlman puts it), the bodyguard returns to the USSR, is thrown in prison and has his teeth punched out. This last occurs after he explains to his Soviet interrogators investigating why he’d been in Germany that Stalin had sent him there. Perlman’s character concludes, "That’s the land of socialism and universal bliss for you."
Elsewhere in the film, a disillusioned Soviet propagandist named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) mutters, "We tried so hard to create a society where everyone was equal, where there was nothing to envy or appropriate. But there is no ‘new man.’ There will always be envy. There will always be rich and poor."
Danilov was not speaking in purely materialist terms. He adds, "Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love." Egalitarians in general, and Karl Marx in particular, take it on the chin with that line. In "Enemy at the Gates," you get none of the numbskull, politically correct, romanticized Marxism that Hollywood shamelessly rehashes again and again.
Christina M. Kohn recently completed her senior year as an economics and history major at Hillsdale College and was a 2006 summer intern at the Mackinac Center. Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and Center are properly cited.