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Michael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.




But "antitrusting" big business is a well-worn movie cliché. Big business is cast as the evil antagonist in countless films. This, of course, is a delicious irony, since the Hollywood studios are themselves the very epitome of big business bullies.


AntiTrust--Trashing Big Business for Fun and Profit 

by Michael Asimow 


In Hollywood, big business is bad business and the recent thriller AntiTrust is no exception. The film centers on Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), a Bill Gates lookalike who runs NURV, a Microsoft lookalike. Winston is trying to roll out new software called Synapse that uses satellites to broadcast simultaneous images on every screen (television or computer) in the world, but the product is not ready, technical breakthroughs are desperately needed, and time is running out.  

Winston entices a young computer geek named Milo Hoffman (Ryan Phillippe) to leave a garage startup and hire on at NURV. Gradually, it dawns on Hoffman that his apparently benign boss is actually stealing ideas from garage geeks and killing anybody who gets in the way. Most viewers will be reminded of The Firm--the scales fall from Hoffman's eyes, he overcomes various betrayals, outsmarts Winston, turns Synapse against him, and ultimately slays Goliath.  

Law and pop culture mavens will expect to see something about antitrust law or some commentary on the Microsoft case, but they'll be disappointed. There is very little about antitrust law in this film. In one scene, Winston berates his lawyers for not thinking outside the box about his antitrust problems; they, of course, don't know what he's talking about. In another, an Antitrust Division investigator tries to turn Hoffman as an informer against NURV. In typical conspiracy-theory movie style, however, the investigator is himself a NURV spy--the government is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And in a third scene, Winston testifies before a legislative committee and denies that he has a monopoly; how could he, when some kid in a garage could put him out of business tomorrow? Of course, Winston's tactics (destroying his garage-based competitors) are the very essence of monopolization, but the film doesn't focus on these niceties.  

In another sense, though, the movie is all about antitrust. Although the notion has become rather old-fashioned, there is an important theme in antitrust thinking that bigness is badness--that a monopoly or even an oligopoly should be illegal regardless of whether it employs predatory tactics or whether it seeks to extort monopoly profits from consumers. In his famous Alcoa opinion in 1945, Judge Learned Hand wrote:  

    [Congress] did not condone "good trusts" and condemn "bad" ones; it forebade all. Moreover, in so doing it was not necessarily actuated by economic motive alone. It is possible, because of its indirect social or moral effect, to prefer a system of small producers, each dependent for his success upon his own skill and character, to one in which the great mass of those engaged must accept the direction of a few. 

This populist vision animates AntiTrust--that NURV is evil because it is a profit-maximizing monopoly. It's evil because it will not share its source code, because its products are inferior copies, because it is able to seduce the best minds into the corporate maw, because it is so big and dominant. Of course, this conclusion is a bit overdetermined, given that NURV also spies on its competitors, steals their ideas, and kills them.  

Perhaps the filmmakers titled their movie "AntiTrust" because they couldn't resist the play on words--at first we and Milo "trust" Winston and NURV, then when we find out the awful truth, we feel "antitrust." But "antitrusting" big business is a well-worn movie cliché. Big business is cast as the evil antagonist in countless films. This, of course, is a delicious irony, since the Hollywood studios are themselves the very epitome of big business bullies. As a thought experiment, try to think of a movie that deals with big business that doesn't treat it as evil incarnate.  

In recent films, take The Insider, which cheerfully trashes both the tobacco and television industries, or The Rainmaker, savaging both the insurance industry and big law firms. Taking a step back in time, recall such stridently anti-business films as Wall St., Network, Silkwood, Norma Rae, or The China Syndrome. Going back a generation or so, who could forget such terrific anti-business diatribes as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Cash McCall, The Apartment, Patterns, or Executive Suite? During the Depression-era 1930's, anti-business films were a staple, including Baby Face (banking), Skyscraper Souls (real estate), The Match King (manufacturing) or Employees' Entrance (department stores).  

AntiTrust, a mildly entertaining anti-business thriller dressed up in fancy new techno-clothes, stands on the shoulders of the anti-business film giants of yesteryear. *


Other Picturing Justice Articles by Michael Asimow


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