Friday, May 22, 2009

Wall Street

Who could have guessed that Oliver Stone, a director obsessed with the past, be it the '60s or Ancient Greece, would make a film that would one day seem eerily prescient? Wall Street certainly had its fair share of current events on which to comment when it debuted in late 1987 -- what with Black Monday and the market crash occurring around the same time -- but recent events have cast the film in an entirely new light, one that only makes the excesses of the film's businessmen seem even seedier.

What struck me about the film almost immediately was its attention to detail: Stone brought aboard several business consultants to ensure his film looked just like the real stock floors and boardrooms -- right down to the ratio of women to men in higher positions. The fat cats never rest on their laurels as peons slave away for mediocre wages while they reap all the benefits: they may not be doing "real" work, but executives and brokers move faster than Olympic athletes and wrack their brains over numbers more than engineers. Only the best survive, and they devour the ones who lag behind even for a second. Yet for all its seriousness, to these men it seem little more than a game.

Into this world comes Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a stockbroker looking for a big client to deliver a fat paycheck. He sets his sights on one of the biggest players in town, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a corporate raider who makes no bones about his willingness to get ahead by any means necessary. Bud tries to win his favor with a box of cigars, but G.G. wants something a bit more substantial. The young broker's father, Carl (Martin Sheen), heads the union of an airline company, and so he begins to feed his potential client information about the company. Over time, Gekko takes the lad under his wing, promising wealth, women and power. He needs to stop worrying about that pesky thing called "legality," is all.

Soon, Bud flies in private jets, buys a swanky home and even scores a hot trophy blonde, the materialistic interior decorator Darien (Daryl Hannah). The sky's the limits. Bud sits in the middle of the rampant, free-market greed of Gekko and the moral compass of his father. Carl just wants his fair share for the union, joking with his son that "money is only something you need if you don't die tomorrow." By contrast, Gekko, in a fiery speech to a company resisting his buyout, coldly admits that "greed, for lack of a better word, is good." Bud only looks on with admiration.

Few directors are better suited to chart the frenetic world of trading like Oliver Stone, who nearly bounces off the wall with energy as he shuffles the corridors with the sharks. He's clearly using the camera to make a point about the pace and casualness of decisions that can put thousands out of work just to bump up profit margins, but Stone never outright condemns the system. No, he's not quite the pinko Commie we make him out to be, and a part of Gekko's infamous "Greed is good" speech isn't all evil: greed really does motivate people to do make some great breakthroughs, and there's nothing wrong with prosperity. Instead, Stone judges those who resort to insider trading and other illegal activities to fuel the unchecked excess of the '80s.

In retrospect, Wall Street reminds me of the worlds Bret Easton Ellis creates: these men aren't really prosperous, they've just buried problems under glitzy illusions. The film never treads in Ellis' dark territory, of course, but you can still practically see the cocaine dust that coats everything. Gekko's mercenary tactics are scarcely removed from the elaborate house of cards that made us all think everything was great until it suddenly collapsed.

The only real weak component of the film is Hannah as Darien: supposedly her ideology conflicted with the shallow nature of the character, but she could have always said no. Nevertheless, she can't bring down such a smartly-written, expertly paced exposé, and Wall Street ranks as one of Stone's finest achievements. Yet I can't help but look at the end, in which Bud rebels against his golden god and must face the SEC, with a certain grain of cynicism: Bud knows he's going to jail for what he's done, but we've all seen businessman after businessman walk away scot free. How strange that I thought his probable incarceration to be almost idealistic.

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