Movie review: ‘Barbarians at the Gate’

At the time of the passing of film and TV legend James Garner, I thought I’d take a look at one of his TV films called “Barbarians at the Gate.” It is an HBO movie, but it actually has better acting and writing than you’ll find in many Hollywood efforts. The effort was among the vanguard of non-studio productions that would blossom in the following years. “Barbarians at the Gate” shows the greed on Wall Street that swelled in the 1980s and has only become worse today. Best yet, “Barbarians at the Gate” is a treat to watch from the first scene to the last. It’s not easy to find, but it’s out there. If you haven’t seen it, make the effort – it’s well worth it.

‘Barbarians at the Gate’
(1993; 107 minutes; rated R; directed by Glenn Jordan and starring James Garner, Jonathan Pryce and Peter Riegert)


(NOTE: I updated this review with revised links on July 21, 2015. I then reorganized the review and added opinion, some more trivia and the further updating of links on Dec. 17, 2017. I further expanded the review and updated links on April 27, 2018.)

It was only a taste of things to come when company executives moved to do a buyout of RJR Nabisco in the late 1980s. Throw in executive excess, the rise of “junk bonds” and the eternal sleazy maneuvers along Wall Street and you have “Barbarians at the Gate,” a really wonderful 1993 offering from HBO.

The plot is simple: The chief executive of the giant tobacco-food conglomerate RJR Nabisco sees trouble on the horizon and takes a liking to the new-to-Wall Street practice of buying out the company; he then spurns the junk bond kings of the time; the whole thing turns nasty as the dollar high-water mark reaches drowning levels; and the ensuing mess spins completely out of control with only a couple of people (and a bunch of stockholders) really happy with the whole thing.

I’ll go through some plotlines by examining the strong efforts by a large percentage of this excellent cast and I’ll single out as both headliner and giving the best performance here to James Garner.

Garner plays RJR Nabisco CEO “F. Ross Johnson.” I’m putting quote marks around a real person’s name because it is a character here. Garner does his work nearly to perfection. He is at his affable-but-tough best and delivers the best lines with great timing and verve. Garner is especially good with humorous analogies such as when he examines the buyout proposal and what he receives, he’s told not to mention his numbers in public. “I don’t think a skywriter’d have enough smoke for them all.”

An Oscar nominee, Garner was a versatile actor doing comedy (such as “Move Over, Darling” with Doris Day), war (the classic WWII film “The Great Escape” – click here for my review) and television (his best-remembered role as “Jim Rockford” on “The Rockford Files”) and he was nominated for best actor in 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance”).

After Garner, the talent and effort doesn’t drop off too much and I’ll look at some in no particular order:

  • Jonathan Pryce earned his Golden Globe nomination for this one and he plays “Henry Kravis,” the egomaniacal, pretentious, nouveau riche financier who challenges Garner for the company. Pryce gives the perfect air to the role and doesn’t under- or over-play the character. Pryce knows how to come off as the smug, high-brow know-it-all who is an iron fist in a velvet glove. His resume includes “Pirates of the Caribbean” films as well as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and as a 007 foe in “Tomorrow Never Dies” (click here for my review). Perfect casting in this role, but, since I’ve never seen or heard the real Kravis speak, I can’t say if the body type or mannerisms are spot-on.
  • Fred Dalton Thompson and Joanna Cassidy play “Jim and Linda Robinson,” Garner’s friends in banking and public relations. Thompson, with his distinctive, signature voice, does a good job because it’s his voice is that all that’s needed to carry the character. His character is a bit constrained in the emotional area, but still comes out with a positive. Thompson was in “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review), “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise (click here for my review), the spy thriller “No Way Out” and two branches of the “Law & Order” TV franchise. He died at 73 in 2015 of cancer.
  • A Golden Globe winner (not for this one), Cassidy one ups her screen husband with her smooth delivery and the chance to express emotion. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of her and she has also been in “Blade Runner,” “The Fourth Protocol” from the Frederick Forsyth novel (click here for my review), “Under Fire” and a string of TV roles. She won for TV’s “Buffalo Bill.”
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Peter Riegert, who is best known as “Donald ‘Boon’ Schoenstein” in the comedy classic “Animal House,” plays “Peter Cohen,” the banker who tries to broker the deal and is Thompson’s subordinate. He shows a restrained but energetic style that fits perfectly to the role. Riegert did his best personal work in the little-remembered but truly outstanding “Local Hero” with Burt Lancaster (click here for my review), but his energetic style fits in well. He did a great turn on HBO’s critically acclaimed “The Sopranos” and most recently has notched credits on Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Riegert was nominated for an Oscar for directing a live action short called “By Courier.”
  • A Primetime Emmy nominee (not for this one), Jeffrey DeMunn, who plays “H. John Greeniaus,” does his job to perfection, too. He’s Garner’s VP in charge of Nabisco and gets left out of the buyout package and stabs Garner in the back (figuratively, of course). His character is obviously in contrast to Garner’s spendthrift ways as well as not being comfortable with the tobacco side of RJR Nabisco and he conveys it perfectly. In “Barbarians at the Gate,” DeMunn is the opposite of the slimy racist he played in “Betrayed” (click here for my review) or the demented serial killer in another outstanding TV movie called “Citizen X” that earned him his nomination (click here for my review).
  • Tom Aldredge, who plays board chairman “Charlie Hugel,” perfectly conveys a corporate personality (I especially enjoyed how he managed to criticize Garner’s greed when his own pushed the price of the company’s shares up 40-percent and ultimate payoff to him). Aldredge and has been in diverse films from “Cold Mountain” to “What About Bob?” and he died in 2011 at 83 of lymphoma.
  • The rest of the supporting cast, especially Peter Dvorsky (as Pryce’s financier cousin), Matt Clark (as Garner’s sidekick), Leilani Sarelle (as Garner’s wife) and David Rasche (as financier Ted Forstmann), provide what a good supporting cast does: competent support. All do really good work, but I’m not going to give them individual looks.

The single funniest scene in the whole movie and what apparently spurred the plan to buy out RJR Nabisco comes at the tobacco giant’s North Carolina testing laboratory. Garner has come for an update on the company’s upcoming “smokeless” cigarette. The news isn’t good and the scene plays out with the scientists playing straight men to Garner’s profane surprise and horror.

When told that the new cigarette tested poorly (fewer than 5-percent of testers liked it) and tasted and smelled bad, Garner in frustration says, “Tastes like s**t and smells like a f**t. Got ourselves a winner here. It’s one ******* unique advertising slogan, I’ll give you that.” If you can avoid laughing here, I’m just not sure what would bring that out in you.

However, while the best, it isn’t the only excellent scene. All the scenes in this film, from a Palm Springs golf course to a men’s public restroom to a corporate boardroom, are smooth and segue perfectly to the next; there’s no wasted time in this film. Plus, viewers don’t have to limp through some lame subplot to get to the next good scene.

The R-rating for “Barbarians at the Gate” is simply unfounded by today’s standards. While there is some profane language (yes, a few f-bombs are dropped), it is absolutely no worse than you’ll find in the bleeped-out dreck on MTV and WeTV.

Since “Barbarians at the Gate” was an HBO effort and released for TV audiences, it isn’t ranked at the Box Office (obviously). However, the No. 1 at the box office in 1993 was “Jurassic Park” with $357 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via

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