Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street (1987)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone.
Starring: Charlie Sheen (Bud Fox), Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Daryl Hannah (Darien Taylor), Martin Sheen (Carl Fox), Hal Holbrook (Lou Mannheim), John C. McGinley (Marvin), Terence Stamp (Sir Larry Wildman), Sean Young (Kate Gekko), James Spader (Roger Barnes), James Karen (Lynch), Sylvia Miles (Dolores the Realtor).

Wall Street is perhaps the quintessential 1980s movie. Not the best movie of the decade – nor even one of the best – but a film that if you want to know what prestige, adult dramas looked like during that decade, you would pretty much get the complete picture by watching it. It is a flashy, stylistic film – complete with montages playing over a drum machine based score, men in flashy suits, with big hair, and women in dresses with huge shoulder pads, and even bigger hair. As a director, Oliver Stone seemed willing to embrace all trends of the time in terms of filmmaking, to make his film seem cutting edge – which, of course, is a surefire sign that the movie will end up aging poorly – which in some ways, Wall Street certainly has. It is very much a movie of its time and place – a portrait of Reagan era excess, meant by Stone to be an outraged howl against it. That the film ended up inspiring a new age of Wall Street men who wanted to be Gordon Gekko is one of the most ironic things about the movie.

The film stars Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox – who works at one of the lowest levels of Wall Street – a broker, sure, but one who has to survive making cold calls to the “little fish”. He wants to be a whale – and sets his sights on the biggest one he can find – Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko. After months of trying, Bud finally gets a meeting with Gekko – but the older man remains unimpressed with Bud and his information – that is, until he gives Gekko a piece of information that no one else knows, about the airline where Bud’s father works. That’s a good tip – and Gekko wants more from Bud. He doesn’t need more analysts pouring over information – he needs someone who is willing to go out there and get the information by whatever means necessary – and Bud is willing to do that. Bud knows what he’s doing isn’t strictly legal – but hey, everyone’s doing it. Soon Bud is sucked into Gekko’s world of big money, and fast women – like Darien (Daryl Hannah), an interior designer who is willing to be with Bud, as long as the money keeps coming in. And Bud is willing to do what it takes to keep it that way.

Stone means Wall Street to be a wake-up call to the unmitigated greed that he saw taking over the country during the go-go 1980s – and he mainly succeeds. Gekko is a person who is willing to do anything to make money – he doesn’t much care if people are hurt by his actions, he doesn’t create anything – he simply does his best to move money from someone else’s pocket to his own. And yet, Stone also created a movie where it is possible to root for Gekko from the get-go, even knowing he’s a greedy asshole. As played by Douglas, who won a deserved Oscar for the role, Gekko is the smartest, most charming guy in the movie. His infamous “Greed is Good” speech – which is probably the scene that won him that Oscar – is a brilliant distillation of the greed of Wall Street, and of “trickle down” economics, that should leave audiences shocked by the greed. Except for the fact that Douglas delivers it with so much conviction, that you wind up almost believing it yourself, unless you’re actually listening to it. Gekko is so much more charming that anyone in the movie – certainly more so that Martin Sheen, as Bud’s father, who is supposed to be the working collar, honest, hardworking counterpoint to Gekko’s greed in the film. But damn it, he also seems like such a stick in the mud – a downer, always lecturing his son. No wonder he goes for Gekko’s line of bullshit with little prompting – it’s so much more fun. For an entire generation, Gekko represents everything that is wrong with Wall Street and greed – unless, of course, you’re one of the many people who decided they wanted to be Gordon Gekko themselves. In another movie – Boiler Room (2000) – the young brokers quote Gekko like he is their God – because in many ways, he is.

Does this make Wall Street a success, or a failure? Wall Street is certainly a “message” movie, and the message comes in loud and clear to many – and is completely inverted for just as many. If Stone can be faulted for anything in Wall Street it’s that he made a film that is perhaps too much fun. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was accused by many of glamorizing its real life Wall Street crooks for much the same reason – the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. Then again, if you cannot see the serious critique of Wall Street greed in both of these films just because they’re entertaining – that’s more on you than the movies themselves. Wall Street is a slick movie – a traditional rise and fall story for Bud Fox, as he starts from the bottom, comes all the way, and then comes crashing down at the end. The rise has got to be fun, or else it wouldn’t make much sense. 

Wall Street does have its share of problems, of course. The ending always rings false to me – as if Bud would suddenly find his conscience again in the blink of an eye, and then do what he does. The fact that the film has a traditional ending – where the evil are punished – actually undercuts the movie’s power a little bit – as it would have been far more honest had everyone gotten away with everything, as that is what seems to happen in real life way more often than not. As mentioned before, Martin Sheen doesn’t quite often the counterpunch to Douglas that I think the movie requires him to – it’s not much Sheen’s fault, he didn’t write his dialogue which basically consists of moral grandstanding speeches. And, as has become common in this series on Stone movies, Wall Street certainly has a woman problem. I think The Wolf of Wall Street does a far better job at showing women are used, abused and tossed aside but the alpha male characters on Wall Street than this movie does, which basically doesn’t bother to present them at all. The only significant female character is Daryl Hannah – who is given almost nothing to do, and looks completely and totally bored the entire time she is doing it. It would have been far better had Stone did what he did with Platoon – and present Wall Street as an all-male world – that at least would have been a quiet commentary on the misogyny of Wall Street where woman are still vastly under represented.

Still, Wall Street is a very good movie. It is one of Stone’s best remembered, and still iconic movies (it’s hard to imagine him being given the money to make a sequel to any of his other films more than two decades later). It isn’t one of his best – it’s a little simplistic to me, perhaps too much style over substance, and too much speechifying to make it as good as it could have been (like The Wolf of Wall Street is – that’s a masterpiece on the same subject). Still, I have seen Wall Street at least five or six times over the years, and it never fails to draw me back in once again. Is the movie too entertaining for its own good? Perhaps – but that’s preferable to the alternative.

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