Monday, November 29, 2010
WALL STREET (1987): Oliver Stone, Greed and More Greed
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy
Oliver Stone’s father was a stockbroker and that seemed like a sufficient enough excuse for him to make a movie called Wall Street. Stone always makes movies that are in some way autobiographical. He was an infantry soldier in Viet Nam, so he understandably directed Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. He was addicted to drugs, so he was involved with movies such as Scarface and Natural Born Killers. He liked the music of Jim Morrison so he made The Doors. His favorite President was John Kennedy, so he created (and “created” in the most literal sense of the word) a movie called JFK, and his least favorite President was George W. Bush, so he directed W. Over the last ten years or so his movies that he has brought out have been safer, less controversial and therefore less interesting. And unfortunately, these later efforts were a great deal more honest than what he used to produce and direct.
Wall Street was probably Stone’s best effort at directing, but that’s not to say the movie lacks a number of flaws. The movie’s significance was in that it came out shortly after the insider trading scandal involving Drexel Corporation, and it is again receiving some passing interest because of recent events bringing the real Wall Street into disrepute. The character, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) was probably based upon Michael Milken, and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) I suppose could have been a young Ivan Boesky. At the beginning of the film, Bud is the young ambitious stockbroker that would do anything to break away from his working class roots. Gekko already has broken from his roots and, we are to understand, almost singlehandedly runs Wall Street. Bud spends something like two months trying to bring himself to the attention of Gekko and finally succeeds by delivering Gekko some Havana cigars on Gekko’s birthday. After a few failed attempts to impress his idol, Bud finally gets Gekko’s attention by providing some inside information about Bluestar Airlines safety violation that is about to be cleared up. This information was provided to Bud in confidence by his father, Carl Fox (Martin Sheen), who had no idea about Bud’s association with Gekko. Gekko then buys out Bluestar with the hopes of great savings by forcing the union to lower its concession demands. Unfortunately for Bud, his father, Carl, who has strong sway with the union, does not trust Gekko. Bud nevertheless gets Carl to persuade the union to go along with Gekko. Only later does Carl and Bud discover that Gekko plans on selling off Bluestar’s assets which would essentially leave Carl and many others out of work. Bud manages to temporarily outsmart Gekko by creating a plan that will cause Bluestar’s stock price to plunge and thus manipulates Gekko into selling the stock at a much lower price to a rival businessman that will keep Bluestar in business. Gekko, finding out about Bud’s role in forcing Gekko to sell the stock off, arranges for Bud to be arrested for security violations. Bud, as a wired informant in return for a lighter sentence, has one last conversation with Gekko (while being pummeled by Gekko’s fists) where Gekko boasts about many other illegal transactions he has been involved in. Bud is being taken to the court when the film ends, so we are never sure what kind of punishment will be dealt out to either Bud or to Gekko.
We also have a few side stories. Carl, a chain-smoking mechanic with great integrity, suffers a heart attack probably brought on by many things – not the least of which is his son Bud’s disapproval. A contrite Bud then tries to make it up with his father as Carl is nursed back to health. We learn that Bud’s girlfriend, Darianne (Daryl Hannah), was a former lover of Gekko and would sell her soul to anyone for a few extra dollars. She parts ways with Bud when she learns he values other things more than money. And Gekko has surrounded himself with some of the most opportunistic bootlickers that must ever have existed. The moral is fairly obvious: Gekko’s “greed is good” motto comes with the price of not having any worthwhile friends.
I can’t say I’m all that impressed with the acting in this 126 minute film. Daryl Hannah was uniformly criticized for playing the part of a manikin, but I’m not sure why Michael Douglas should receive that much more credit for completely overacting. There is probably not a single scene in the movie where Douglas ever exudes anything resembling human warmth, though the script does deserve some of the blame for this. Charlie Sheen is still a bit too young to play the part. Probably he would have been more effectively brash if he was five years older. Martin Sheen perhaps did the best job of acting in the entire film and ends up closest to not being typecast for his role.
Director Oliver Stone is not known for subtlety, and Wall Street is probably his least subtle movie. That’s not the worst criticism. It has become fashionable for movie directors to believe in nothing and then pass it off as substance. At least Stone was trying to say something. We know Gekko’s motives. He wants money, and he’s certainly not alone in the world wishing for that. And Gekko’s interesting. As in most movies, the evil character is the most interesting, but here Carl also shows some personality and backbone. The problem is this: with Stone’s absolute insistence that this is a realistic depiction of America’s financial district, the only viewers that will actually share in Stone’s convictions are those convinced that there is a bogeyman behind every corner in America. These individuals believe there really is a great deal of difference in the spiritual makeup of those that are very rich and those that are poor. If Stone believes that there is such thing as a soul, it is only possessed by male blue collar workers that actually get their hands dirty with something other than money.
I strongly agree with Stone that it would be best that we made our livings by other means than moving money from one person’s hands into the hands of someone else. For many employed on Wall Street, money is a plaything rather than something one had to struggle to obtain. Greed is destructive. That’s the point that Carl makes to his son after his son’s arrest. If money says anything about the value of a person it only demonstrates it in the way we’ve made our money – not in how much money we actually have. Yet if money is used by some as a tool to belittle others, self-righteousness can also accomplish the same end. Stone is often guilty of such self-righteousness. Stone grew up affluent, so perhaps Bud is a somewhat fictionalized prototype of the director. But Stone’s criticism is so heavy-handed that many of the chief characters in Wall Street come off as parodies, and Bud comes close to being a whiny little jerk.
There probably are men like Gekko in the world that tone it down a bit because they are not grandstanding for a Hollywood film. Bernard Madoff for example. And though these individuals can inflict a great deal of damage, what is probably worse is the unconscious indifference that most of us every day show towards the poor. For whatever he was, Gekko was upfront about his designs and is easily recognizable. The other sort of damage that the rest of us afflict is not analyzed by anyone like Oliver Stone because it would require a great deal more thought.
© Robert S. Miller 2009