Five must-watch trading movies
The rise of the stock market and finance-related genre is one of the most interesting film trends of the last 30 years. Fuelled by the explosion in share ownership and the economic upheavals of the 1980s, this genre has reflected some of the biggest events in the financial markets over the last three decades.
Now, we’re talking about Hollywood here, so naturally, most of these films focus on the more extreme aspects of the financial markets. Watching any of these masterpieces won’t help you to win a stock trading quiz, but the five films listed here will serve as a warning to unwary investors about what can happen when the financial markets go wrong.
Wall Street, 1987
Few films have done more to shape public perceptions of the stock markets and of financial trading than this masterpiece, released in 1987, at the height of the stock market boom on both sides of the Atlantic.
Charlie Sheen’s character, Bud Fox, represents the ambitious naivety of Americans wanting to get rich at almost any cost, and corporate shark Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas in top form) represents the corruption that can consume people looking for a quick payday.
Although it shows us some of the workings of the mid-80s financial markets, this is essentially a morality play that wrestles impressively with the moral dilemmas of unrestrained capitalism and its effects on individuals both inside and outside the system.
Rogue Trader, 1998
Based on a true story, this film stars Ewan McGregor as Nick Leeson, the man who, while a futures trader at Barings Bank, managed to bankrupt the entire firm.
It is a remarkable piece of work, not just because it reveals how trading is conducted at one of the world’s biggest banks, but also because while you’re watching this astonishing tale of astronomical sums of money and almost as incredible greed, you know that most of these events actually took place.
The film digs deeper than Wall Street did into the emotional pressures and human failings associated with catastrophic trading losses, and serves as a reminder of what can happen when traders lose all regard for risk management and restraint.
Margin Call, 2011
Probably only surpassed for the star quality of its cast by The Big Short (2015), Margin Call stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore, and is one of several films that attempted to grapple with the 2008 banking collapse.
The film is based on a fictional investment bank and is compressed into one 24-hour period in which a lone trader (Zachary Quinto) discovers that the bank has taken on dangerous amounts of risk. The remainder of the film shows how the bank’s management takes the decision to sell off all of its soon-to-be-worthless assets, and both the cynicism and human cost involved.
Irons’ speech, as CEO John Tuld, in which he outlines the three ways to succeed in the financial world: ‘Cheat, be smarter or be first’, is one of many memorable moments from this award-winning film.
The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013
All five films on this list proved controversial, but The Wolf of Wall Street was in a class of its own for controversy. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a version of the real-life stock market operator Jordan Belfort, who was convicted of money laundering and securities fraud in 1999.
The film is based on an investment brokerage firm, similar to Belfort’s real-life company, that essentially scams customers through aggressive sales tactics and other means. Starring an impressive cast that includes Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey, it covers some of the same ground from the same era as Wall Street, but with a much grittier edge.
The Big Short, 2015
Perhaps the only silver lining to the financial disaster of 2008 was that it ultimately led to two superb films: the previously mentioned Margin Call and The Big Short, which came out in 2015.
The film is based on a book of the same name, written by Michael Lewis. It tells multiple parallel stories of three separate individuals who spotted the imminent collapse of the housing market in the US and profited through betting against the perceived wisdom of the time.
Not only does this film have an all-time great cast of Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Steve Carell, a very strong supporting cast and cameos from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and the late Anthony Bourdain, but it also does an unusually effective job of explaining the reasons for the 2008 crash, while serving as a warning of the dangers of incentivising greed and wishful thinking.