R | 1h 51min | Drama, biography | January 24, 2023
All bookstores have a unique advantage in the retail world. Thanks to a policy adopted during the Great Depression, all book retailers can return any unsold books to publishers for full credit (in rare cases, some minor penalties might apply).
Admittedly, Amazon.com developed into a challenge few booksellers, including executives of the major bookstore chains, anticipated. Independent stores that weathered the storm of competition from Barnes & Noble subsequently found the Internet giant underpricing them on all the latest bestsellers.
However, in the early days, Amazon did not look so formidable. The online-retailing giant’s genesis is now dramatized in Khoa Le’s “Bezos: The Beginning.”
As the film opens, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is an awkward, but mostly likable fellow, who has already impressed his hedge fund bosses with the intelligence of his analysis and the diligence of his work ethic.
Tasked with finding the next big opportunity, Bezos has an epiphany moment when he reads a report of Internet sales growing at a rate of over 2,000 percent. Believing in the future of online retailing, Bezos settles on books as the perfect category to start with, because an Internet store could conceivably carry every title in-print from major distributors, whereas brick-and-mortar stores are physically limited by what they can fit on their shelves.
Obviously, Bezos was onto something, but the thinly fictionalized bookstore trade association in Le’s film just doesn’t get it, and Leonard Riggio, the founder of Barnes & Noble, is openly contemptuous of Bezos and his vision.
Nevertheless, when Bezos describes his online endeavor (not yet re-named “Amazon”) as the “world’s largest bookstore,” Riggio reacts with litigious threats.
It is rather fascinating to revisit Amazon’s early days in light of all the company’s subsequent controversies, including its recent decision to scrap the Smile program (which allowed customers to donate a small percentage of their sales to the charity of their choice).
Somewhat unexpectedly, a good portion of Le’s film focuses on the supportive relationship Bezos enjoyed with his Cuban-American step-father Miguel Bezos, who adopted him as his own son. In many ways, the film is surprisingly sympathetic towards the Amazon founder.
It is not hagiography either. Bezos’s obsessive drive clearly strains his marriage to first-wife MacKenzie Scott that he only manages to halfway repair before the site launch. However, the film’s golden moment comes during a pitch to venture capitalists. When they remark on his long-term potential to corner the market for online retailing, Le’s Bezos replies with a straight face: “’Monopolizing’ is a very harsh word.” It is easy to imagine at this moment the sound of Amazon’s critics grinding their teeth.
“Bezos: The Beginning” is aptly named because it literally encompasses the earliest days of Amazon. This Bezos is not political in any way, but he is a good capitalist.
Screenwriters Allison Burnett and R.V. Romero (taking inspiration from Ebanks’ “Zero to Hero” young adult biography) certainly capture the “creative destruction” that Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter famously associated with capitalist innovation, particularly through the actions and motivations of the Riggio character.
If nothing else, this film should change viewers’ perceptions of actor Kevin Sorbo, because he is terrific as the shark-like B&N CEO. Based on his work in “Bezos,” the former “Hercules” star would be an inspired choice to play Gordon Gekko in a “Wall Street” remake, should one ever happen.
In contrast, Armando Gutierrez is convincingly cerebral and driven as the titular tycoon, but those qualities do not exactly pop off the screen. However, Emilio Estefan Jr. (Gloria Estefan’s husband and founder of the Miami Sound Machine) provides the film’s humanistic heart as Miguel Bezos, while keeping the title character’s adopted Cuban heritage front-and-center throughout the film.
“Bezos: The Beginning” neither attacks or defends its subject. As a result, it offers an intriguing and rarely seen perspective on the future tech titan.
However, the title is no lie. It ends way before Amazon becomes even a glimmer of what it now has become, which will frustrate viewers looking for a fuller chronicle of Amazon’s rise to dominance. Frankly, it does indeed feel somewhat abbreviated. Yet, it also identifies early key mistakes that were made by those around Bezos, including his competitors, and shows how he capitalized off them. MBA students and budding venture capitalists could probably appreciate the film as a case study.
Recommended as a straightforward, unbiased real-life business start-up drama, “Bezos: The Beginning” releases Jan. 24 on VOD.
‘Bezos: the Beginning’
Director: Khoa Le
Stars: Armando Gutierrez, Kevin Sorbo, Emilio Estefan Jr.
Running Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2023
Rating: 3.5 out of 5