‘Money Monster’ explores what happens when terrorism, business journalism and live TV collide

June 15, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 15, 2016

Money Monster is a competent, modest thriller about a terrorist — sorry, a white man beset by financial difficulties and other troubles — who hijacks a live TV show. The show is called Money Monster; its host is the fatuous Lee Gates (George Clooney), who likes being on television but doesn’t trouble himself with any of the ethical issues that normally attend an enterprise with journalistic (or even quasi-journalistic) airs.

The story plays out almost in real time over the course of a few hours on a Friday afternoon. The plot is triggered by the abrupt crash of the stock of a company called Ibis; only a few days before the movie opens, it lost $800 million in value due to what executive Walt Camby (Dominic West) opaquely describes as a computer “glitch.” Shortly before Money Monster goes on the air, producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) learns that Camby has broken his promise to appear for a live in-studio interview about the situation.

But disgruntled — and now financially bereft — janitor cum amateur investor cum gunman Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connor) doesn’t know about this late cancellation. That’s why he shows up on set waving a gun and lugging two boxes, which he says contain suicide-bomber vests fitted for Gates and Camby. By threatening to shoot Gates, Budwell blackmails the network into airing the TV-jacking live and uncut. The New York Police Department shows up quickly, but the world is captivated by this life-and-death drama that threatens to go on indefinitely…

Budwell is a dangerous man, but often the person he puts at greatest risk is himself. It takes a while for Fenn, Gates and police Capt. Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) to figure out, but Molly (Emily Meade), the woman the cops summon in an attempt to talk Budwell down, has long known this. (Her mostly one-sided conversation with Budwell comprises one of Money Monster’s cleverest reversals of audience expectations.)

The movie strains to be contemporary. There are oily corporate executives enigmatically attributing immense losses to cryptic computer glitches, instantaneous Internet access and live TV streaming on mobile phones, nigh-instantaneous social media and TV reactions to current events, TV hosts playing with huge interactive monitors as camera operators swoop and circle around them, and mysterious Scandinavian hackers liberating reams of confidential information.

And yet Money Monster embraces some very traditional values. The world cheers Budwell as he tries to make Gates and other rich muckety-mucks eat humble pie, but the audience is equally amused when the poor schmuck is himself humiliated. When Gates tries a stunt in an attempt to make Budwell and other investors financially whole again, the endeavor falls flat on its face.

Neither character begins to make any progress toward escaping the hostage situation alive until they learn to begin trusting the people around them — Gates, in Budwell’s case; Fenn and her crew, in Gates’s. Individual effort is valuable, the movie tells us, but teamwork is far more important. And the movie heavy-handed signals that fame and money are nice, but a good work ethic and the love of a good woman — that is, everything represented by Roberts’s character — are far more important.

Moreover, director Jodie Foster (in her first outing behind the camera since 2011’s obscure family drama The Beaver) and writers Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf suggest that the general public hasn’t got a prayer of finding out what’s really going on in the halls of power unless someone (literally) waves a gun in the face of a news organization and prompts it to put on its big-boy reporting pants and start, you know, reporting.

It’s a discouraging message, and it fails to diagnosis all of the reasons why most journalism is so ephemeral. In some ways, the factor the movie doesn’t address is more sobering: The media responds to market forces, and the sobering truth is that there isn’t always a market for serious news. Still, there’s no question that too many would-be journalists prioritize attracting and entertaining audiences over reporting important stories.

One of Money Monster’s most fascinating moments is its final line of dialogue, when one of the main characters (Internet Movie Database lists it as being Fenn, although I perhaps inaccurately remember it being Gates) asks the other, “So what the hell kind of show are we going to do next week?” It’s unclear whether they’ve learned their lesson or they will blithely continue airing the same vacuous nonsense they did before their encounter with Budwell. If this movie receives any serious critical evaluation, much of it will involve debating that issue.

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