Best Movies You’ve Never Seen: BARBARIANS AT THE GATE

Directed by Glenn Jordan
Written by Larry Gelbart (based on a book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar)
Released March 1993
HBO Studios

Here’s a timely film review for two reasons. 1, James Garner died last night at age 86 and 2, Friday a jury awarded $23 billion punitive damages against RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company

This film details the story of the $25 billion Leveraged Buyout of RJR Nabisco in 1988. Filmed as a dramatic comedy it’s told primarily from the POV of RJR President F. Ross Johnson, played by Garner. We learn through flashbacks that he is a born salesman. Since he was a young man he was selling photo-shoots door to door. As he later says “a salesman is validated by every sale he makes,” and that’s Ross. He has a reputation for being a big spender, we see him hosting a large gold tournament for RJR’s vendors and investors, all in Ross’ mentality of you gotta spend money to make money. The film is also a not-so-subtle indictment of 1980’s financial excess. Leilani Sarelle plays Ross’ adoring younger wife Laurie. They fly around on a private corporate jet (one of many at RJR’s disposable) and hot black-tie parties. It’s a good life. But Johnson’s problem is that the company stock isn’t growing, due to legal concerns about tobacco use. Ross is pinning his hopes a new “smokeless” cigarette that he’s had his researchers develop. But results aren’t what he’d hoped for…

At that point he gets the idea to buy out the company and take it private, so he can run it himself. He got the idea from the notorious LBO master, Henry Kravis (Jonathan Pryce), who had approached Ross earlier about the idea. But Ross rebuffed him, afraid that if he went along with it Kravis would insist on exerting too much control over how he runs the company. So he goes at himself, with his own partners. But when Kravis finds out he makes his own LBO bid, which draws in other potentially bidders and it becomes a big bidding war, with the stakes being raised higher and higher until the final showdown.

What’s great about this film is that you don’t need to know anything about LBO’s or high finance in order to follow this story. It’s about the characters, and the kind of pressure that they face in a situation like this. Garner completely stole the show in just about every scene that he’s in. He really makes Ross seem like an underdog, and you can’t help but root for him. Pryce is also excellent as Kravis, the cold calculating billionaire. Other stand-outs are Fred Thompson and Joanna Cassidy as Jim an Linda Robinson of American Express, who are part of Ross’ investment team, Peter Riegert as their lawyer Peter Cohen, Peter Dvorsky as Henry Kravis’ partner and cousin George Roberts, and David Rasche as Ted Forstmann, a rival investor who initially tries to get Ross to side with him against Kravis, and then eventually makes his own separate bid against both of them.

It’s a fascinating film with compelling characters and an excellent cast. It’s one of my all-time favorites, I highly recommend it.



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