Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Non-stop, the Ben Bernanke Biopic

by Matt McKenna

MaxresdefaultOver the past year, theatres have been inundated with terrific biopics: Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for his rendition of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, and 12 Years a Slave won best picture for its depiction of the life of Solomon Northrup. Less talked about, but even more interesting than the aforementioned films is Non-stop, the recently released Ben Bernanke biopic starring Liam Neeson. Granted, the film isn't a straight retelling of the economist's life–at no point does Neeson's character open up an Excel document and ponder interest rates. Instead, Neeson's character spends most of his time texting terrorists and punching people in the nose, things for which Bernanke isn't particularly well known. Don't be fooled by these surface differences, however. Director Jaume Collet-Serra realized that, in order to adequately tell the story of Ben Bernanke's life as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, he would have to do it through the lens of a suspense-thriller set on a transatlantic flight.

Non-stop is a fantastic example of a high-concept film: an international flight is hijacked, and the accused hijacker happens to be Bill Marks, the American air marshal assigned to protect the plane. Because the movie is more of a mystery film than an action film, the overarching tension isn't so much about the safety of the passengers on board. Rather, audiences are expected to wonder whether or not Marks, played by Liam Neeson, is actually hijacking the plane or if he is, in fact, attempting to save it from being hijacked. The is-he-a-good-guy-or-is-he-a-bad-guy question that pervades Non-stop mirrors the questions surrounding Ben Bernanke and his tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve. In a sense, Bernanke was the air marshal assigned to protect the United States economy. And indeed, the policies Bernanke enacted while the economy was “hijacked” by the Great Recession have engendered voluminous commentary on the subject of whether or not he did a good job or a bad job at improving the country's economic outlook.

Marks, like Bernanke before the recession, started his job without reason to believe he'd be caught up in a perilous situation–he steps on board a flight from New York to London and promptly orders himself a gin and tonic in preparation for what should have been a boring ride in which his skills as an air marshal would go happily unutilized. The situation changes quickly as Marks receives threatening text messages on his phone, the way Bernanke must have received threatening economic indicators in 2007 during the nascent stages of the housing market collapse.

Marks reluctantly takes a wait-and-see-approach until the second act when things go really awry: people on the flight end up dead, further threats are made, and eventually he is personally implicated in the crime. At this point, Marks takes it upon himself to uncover the perpetrators of the hijacking by interrogating the passengers and acting out a series of questionable tactics that include duct taping a man's hands together and parading him through the aisle ways with a level of violence that seems unnecessary especially considering the scrutiny to which he was subject. This switch from passive caution to aggressive action is a blatant reference to Bernanke's decision to bail out Bear Stearns in 2008 mere months after allowing Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt. While some people claim the Bear and Lehman situations were different enough to warrant these disparate actions, Non-stop makes the argument that the chaos that followed the collapse of Lehman pushed Bernanke to rescue Bear. By taking decisive action, both Marks and Bernanke knowingly threw themselves into the center of their respective crises and subsequently put their reputations at risk.

Over the remainder of the film, Marks is besieged by every conceivable event that can go wrong on a plane this side of snakes: outrageously violent turbulence, agitated passengers with martial arts training, pressure-sensitive explosives, and even tumbling beverage carts. To combat these incessant onslaughts, Marks is compelled to utilize his sharp wit, wrestling acumen, and zero-gravity-shooting skills. While some of the challenges Marks encounters may feel contrived, they do reflect the intensity of the challenges that Bernanke confronted: Tea-partiers protesting the stimulus, a divided Congress, and outrageously over-leveraged mega-banks. Although Bernanke wasn't required to engage in hand-to-hand combat to save the plummeting economy, he did the next best thing by keeping the federal funds rate near zero and enacting several controversial rounds of quantitative easing.

Non-stop doesn't offer an epilogue describing Bill Marks' post-hijacking life, but it seems likely he has ridden his last flight as an air marshal for the United States government. One imagines Marks may have a future career opportunity as a private security guard at a Verizon store where his prolific texting skills could be construed as an asset. Likewise, Bernanke rounded out his last term as chairman of the Fed this past January and has since left the public sector. He is now a Distinguished Fellow in Residence at the Brookings Institute where he will write books and give speeches and make a heap of money. Having made it through the roughest economic years in United States history since the Great Depression with his reputation mostly in tact, it's easy to imagine Bernanke feeling a bit of relief. That said, until the ramifications of his policy decisions are fully understood, his legacy will continue to be “up in the air.”