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Non-Review Review: Wall Street

It’s interesting that Wall Street, a movie set in the time that it was made, begins with a titlecard reminding the audience that it’s 1985. Maybe it’s because director Oliver Stone realised that the movie would be dated almost as swiftly as it had been released – financial services are very much a product of their time, anchored in a specific moment. “By four o’clock, I’m a dinosaur!” one character exclaims over the phone as he tries to get information – information that will be redundant if he waits too long. However, I don’t think Wall Street is in anyway redundant. The current financial crisis suggests that – if anything – the original film is as relevant now as when it was released (and is the only reason I am not flat-out dreading the release of Wall Steet: Money Never Sleeps). No, I think that it is because, even in the midst of the decade that it was produced, Stone could see the movie would perfectly capture that moment in time. Seriously, despite the fact that its core ideas are as insightful as they were twenty-five years ago, the movie itself feels like the pure essence of the eighties distilled into a two-hour film. That titlecard isn’t there to remind viewers that this is a dated film, it serves as a stamp or a label. Not to say “this is set in 1985”, but “this is 1985″.

Gordon takes stock...

Because, as couched in the insider trading and investment atmosphere of the decade taste forgot, Stone grants his parable power by framing it in simple terms. Despite the fact that the audience might not know a “tender offer” from a “stock option”, the movie still speaks to them. We may have changed the noun we use to “equity” or “shares” or “funds”, but it’s another iteration of that classic story of the relationship between man and money – man and his own avarice. As a seasoned professional fund manager explains to the young protagonist, “The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” That’s a pretty timeless moral right there.

And yet it’s timely too. Both then and now. The eighties are, as young Bud Fox tells his ageing blue-collar father, a place where “there’s nobility in poverty anymore”. It’s all about possessions and money and stature, and expense. The story at the heart of the film – a young broker works his way up to the big leagues and discovers that success and wealth come at a very high price – is a very straightforward one. Even from the summary, you can pretty much guess how it ends. However, its power flows from that simplicity.

It’s a movie about how easy it is to do amoral things in pursuit of profit – what began as a conversation between father and son becomes a hot stock tip; an attempt to please a potential employer becomes tailing a wealthy businessman around the city; and it gradually descends into sordid deals involving power of attorney and offshore bank accounts. When asked about whether he did anything sordid to score information, Bud replies, “That wouldn’t have been legal.” Gordon Gekko, his mentor figure, is almost taken aback that Bud felt it was worth mentioning, “Sure.” When Bud tries to draw in a former classmate to an insider trading scam, his only concern is “Who is listening?”

It really elevated Charlie Sheen...

This is a world built as a temple to materialism. Fortune magazine is “the bible” to these people. The resident greeting is something akin to “I’ll talk at you.” Those chattering remark on the difficulties of life in this new religion, “It is so difficult to get into a good nursery school these days.” You’re telling me. Stone films a flirtatious scene between Bud and Darien as something akin to furniture porn. Her hand dances over a leather couch. There are strange sculptures on a glass table. Eyes study wild paint on a canvas, looking for pretentious meaning in a random smattering of paint.

If materialism is the religion, Gekko is the priest at this most unholy festivity. There’s a lot of discussion about Michael Douglas as Gekko, the greasy embodiment of eighties sleazy in an expensive suit and a motor mouth. Some viewers are disgusted by him, but – in bringing the brash manly charisma of the character to the screen – Douglas has admitted that Gekko himself has a perverse cult following:

Michael Douglas often expresses his astonishment at the many Wall Street males who have sought him out in public places just to say, “Man, I want to tell you, you are the single biggest reason I got into the business. I watched Wall Street, and I wanted to be Gordon Gekko.” The film’s equally perplexed screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, has made the same point, in a different way. “We wanted to capture the hyper-materialism of the culture,” he said. “That was always the intent of the movie. Not to make Gordon Gekko a hero.”

It isn’t that the movie is particularly subtle: Gordo Gekko is a bad guy, but a charming one. He radiates power and authority. He couches his greed in logical and rational terms.

He has any number of instantly quotable lines. I mean, he fires off these quips and clichés with such force that he seems quicker and sharper than those around him. He instructs his lackeys to “raise the sperm count on the deal”, while advising that “lunch is for wimps”. Of a competitor, he dismissively remarks, “if this guy owned a funeral parlor, no one would die”. He justifies his greed with the observation that “a fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place”. And let’s not forget the subtitle of the sequel, as he picks up a phone in the early morning, “money never sleeps”. And all that ignores the speech that we all remember (and occasionally misremember): “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” If ever you could distill the decade down to a simple soundbyte, Gekko’s moment of snakeoil salesmanship would be it.

Douglas doesn't phone it in...

And yet, Stone avoided painting the character as unambiguously evil – perhaps leading to the cult around him. Gekko might embody the worst excesses of the period, but he still feels like a real character rather than a two-dimensional foil (perhaps the irony is that Gekko feels more real than the lead character – Bud Fox). Beneath the shallow portrayal of a greedy, all-consuming monster who shreds his birthday cards and screens calls from his own wife while exercising on a treadmill in his own office, there’s a familiar and raw anger at his core.

Gekko confides to Bud that he is just “city college boy”, and speaks with disdain of “Ivy League schmucks sucking my kneecaps”. there’s a sense of vindication – despite not being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Gekko has climbed the social ladder. There remains that anger, that burning ambition – indeed, it’s quite possible that it’s Bud’s lower class background which appeals to Gekko, who sees him as a younger reflection. Even his more petty and vindictive actions are driven by a subtle classism. To the newly-knighted Sir Lawrence, he remarks,  “My mail is the same colour as yours is, pal. Or at least it was until the Queen started calling you ‘sir’.” I wonder if Gordon was bullied as a child. Seen as such, his taste in popular art can be read as pretension, an attempt to be seen as something other than a tasteless striver. Of course, it’s tacky, but it grants him the right to consider himself cultured and sophisticated.

Stone populates the film’s soundtrack with noises which sound almost like jungle music. It is, after all, a jungle out there. There’s even a decidedly tropical feeling to the choice of Talking Heads’ This Must be the Place. Stone is a great film maker, and his capacity to offer drama has arguably never been better – the financial markets aren’t exactly the stuff of pulse-pounding adventure, but he gives his movie an energy and vitality which means that it never slumps during its two-hour runtime.

Michael Douglas is the perfect actor for Gekko, and deserved his award. In the years since, I wonder if he considers it something of a mixed blessing, so closely is he linked with that creation. Charlie Sheen is fairly okay in the lead, he’s a bit of a blank slate as he was in Platoon, likely intended to allow the audience to identify with him. It’s nice to see Charlie allowed an opportunity to act opposite his father, Martin, playing father and son. That said, I’ve never cared for Daryl Hannah. she seems awkward and bland. Her delivery seems stilted and almost emotionless. It’s quite distracting. And, as with most Stone films, it’s nice to see John C. McGinley.

Wall Street is a great film. It isn’t particularly nuanced or subtle in exploring its central idea about the power of money to corrupt (although, based on Gekko’s fanbase, maybe it was too subtle), but it never feels too forced or awkward. It’s a well-made film, and perhaps a wonderful sampling of the mindset of the nineteen eighties.

2 Responses

  1. Of course ‘skilfully done’ —BUT in an exceptionally
    stale year for feature films, and with BOTH the
    20th anniversary of the Tiennamen Massacre AND
    the staggeringly relevant 60th anniversary of the
    KOREN WAR being ‘overlooked’ —AND with the
    likesof Bill Gates creepily soft-selling ‘selective’
    extermination of the old and ‘unfit’ EVEN AS
    estimates of ‘peacetime’ genocide in Hollywood’s
    ‘fave’ mass market, cheap labor and credit source
    ACROSS the Pacific swell far beyond 80 MILLION
    —you’d think the ‘daring’ STONE could’ve come
    up with something a little closer to the mark—–

    • Well, I think he’s confined by his subject matter. He’s making a movie about stocks. It features stockbrokers and domestic concerns. I’m sure there’s a film in him about the impact of that greed abroad, but I don’t think Wall Street was ever meant to be that film.

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