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Barbarians at the Gate
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Barbarians at the Gate (DVD)
The 80's... It was a time when everybody was doing the big bucks, but f. Ross Johnson, CEO of R.J. R. Nabisco has every intention of making a fortune. When Johnson (James Garner) decides to buy out the Nabisco shareholders and take over his company, no one is prepared for what hits the fan. Johnson is introduced to the master of the leveraged buyout, Henry Kravis (Johnathon Pryce) but, afraid of losing the company to this sharp dealer, he decides to make his move with Peter Cohen (Peter Riegert). Kravis, however, is not to be outdone, and begins an aggressive campaign of his own. What follows is a down-to-the-wire battle to see who's really king of the Wall Street jungle. They may look like polite, well-dressed businessmen, but listen hard and you can hear the pounding of BARBARIANS AT THE GATE.]]>
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As the film opens, the profiglate, glad-handing, cigar-chewing CEO of RJR Nabisco, F. Ross Johnson (James Garner), is approached by business tycoon Henry Kravis (Johnathan Pryce) about performing a "leveraged buyout" of the corporation Johnson runs. Kravis, who all but invented the LBO, explains the procedure: using huge sums of borrowed money, a group of investors buys out a corporation's shareholders for far more than their shares are worth (which is why the shareholders are willing to sell). The leverage group then becomes sole owner of the company without having to put up much of their own cash, and from that point forward, despite their massive new debt, they reap a much larger share of the company's profits for themselves. It's a risky move, driven by pure greed and the thrill of high-stakes gambling, and for those reasons alone appeals deeply to the thrill-seeking gambler Johnson. What doesn't appeal to Johnson is Kravis, an icy egotist who gives less than a damn about the innumerable thousands of people left unemployed by his business shennanigans. So "F." decides to take Kravis' advice and try to buy out Nabisco - but with his own investment group instead of Kravis'. This, of course, enrages Kravis, who decides to go after Nabisco too, thus triggering a gigantic bidding war that not only sucks in half of Wall Street, but puts the whole of American corporate culture under a media microscope. What started as an attempt to buy a successful company for more than it is worth turns into a 26-billion dollar game of chicken which, if it showed nothing else, certainly exposed the lengths to which ego and greed often dictate our economy.
Anyway, what really makes this movie stand out are the performances. Fueled by the rapid, almost joyously sarcastic screenplay by Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H television fame), the lineup of veteran character actors deliver alternating drama and laughs.
Leading the way is Garner, who plays the likeable scoundrel Johnson with a vulgar vainglorious vitality that makes him impossible to dislike. (The sequences where Garner discovers the "smokeless cigarette" his company has spent half a billion dollars developing literally smells and tastes like you-know-what are priceless)
On the other hand, British veteran Johnathan Pryce, who can play haughty, ice-blooded villains better than anyone around, makes a perfect counterpoint (think Charles Emerson Winchester to Garner's Hawkeye Pierce). Fred Dalton Thompson is also, as always, very effective, and even Peter Reigert, who I occasionally find abrasive, does a great job portraying a man with more spunk than ability.
Now, I am no economist, and certainly not one to get into the swampy debate about the evils of capitalism if I can avoid it, but there is no denying that this film (and the book upon which it was based) exposes a great deal of the absurdity inherent in the corporate system. It is not merely the idea of corporate raiding, junk bonds and leveraged buyouts that is exposed to ridicule here, but the actual idea behind corporations themselves - the stark fact that a company which employs hundreds of thousands of people exists, in the last analysis, soley for the financial benefit of a dozen or so majority shareholders, and can be dismantled and sold like so many stolen car parts simply to make excessively rich people even richer. Indeed, when Teddy Forstmann (David Rasche, doing a lot with a small part) declares that Kravis and his kind are "barbarians" who loot the corporate world at the expense of the American economy, ruining countless people and pushing the country toward economic ruin simply to satiate their own lust for money, the point my college economics teacher made is fully driven home: corporations are not immoral. Immorality implies having a set of values -- evil values but still values. Corporations, on the other hand, are amoral; they lack any values whatever, and their absolute lack of values can't help but infect everyone involved with them. The Kravises and Johnsons of the world are merely following the same instinct which made American businessmen sell the Japanese scrap iron and oil when they knew war with Japan was right around the corner. But whether you agree with this assesment or not, the point is that this film makes for good discussion - and given the state of our economy and how it came to this nadir, a timely one too.
This movie did win Emmy and does have some merits. First, it's a good entertainer. Second, it was the background of executives involved was done well because it provided a perspective.
This movie is a classic reference in most of the classes on Strategic Corporate Management (bidding wars) or Corporate Governance in a business school. The tobacco company CEO decides to buy the company back and this results in a bidding war. Specifically, the historic incident depicted was done in an era when the Internet didn't exist. As a result, the Corporate Governance standards in United States of America were very shoddy, and at best, not serving to shareholders interests.
In my opinion, this movie will not classify as a 'great movie' category because of the treatment that the director gave it. The real deal-moment was over-simplified. I understand that it's not a documentary movie and hence, was dumbed down for the consumption of a wider audience.
I do recommend this for all who are interested in good exciting acting, and how big business works.
But this movie is under 2 hours and managed to take a very complicated topic in Leveraged Buy-Outs (LBO's) in one of the biggest LBO's of our time in RJR-Nabisco and manages to make the story very entertaining. It flows quickly and I had no trouble following what's going on.
The acting is superb; Jonathan Pryce played Henry Kravis as a cold, calculated and ruthless corporate raider (whether Kravis is like that in real life I don't know) and James Garner did a nice job as F. Ross Johnson. Overall, if you like wall street type movies like Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, I would highly recommend this movie. In fact, I like this better than Wall Street.