Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wall Street Movie Review: A First Look at an 80s Icon

“Greed is good.” So says Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street, in one of the most famous 80s cinematic speeches when he attempts to save his position as an investor trying to leverage more profit out of Teldar Paper. The line is oft quoted, oft cited as one of the greatest or most memorable lines in movie history, but most significantly it’s held aloft as the prime example of what was wrong with corporate America in the 1980s. And Gekko is viewed as the epitome, the representative on the screen of the worst elements of capitalism.

The thing that’s always bothered me about the way that line is quoted is that not only is it always taken out of context, but it’s also truncated. The full line is, “Greed – for lack of a better word – is good.” Gekko goes on to draw a relationship between greed in all its forms – not just for money, but for knowledge and love – and creative and industrial growth in nations. Watching the movie and that speech I found it hard to disagree or to think of him as such a bad guy. Oh yeah, he’s a bad guy through most of his other actions, but that speech is spot on.

What too many people misunderstand is that greed doesn’t always have to be a sin. Yes, too many people, including Gordon Gekko and his protégé, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), allow themselves to take greed beyond the limits of what is right, fair and decent. But I have to say that greed, kept in check by fair regulation, is good.

The question is what does director Oliver Stone think of greed? Is Wall Street a tough criticism of Wall Street business dealings and the unchecked thirst for money to breed more money? It’s hard not to view it through that lens given Stone’s track record of politically motivated films. At the very least it’s a strong cautionary tale summed up in Lou Mannheim’s (Hal Holdbrook) warning to Bud that “money makes you do things you don’t want to do.”

The script by Stone and Stanley Weiser is smart, knows the ins and outs of the Wall Street life and moves along at a brisk pace, aided by Stone’s deft direction. The opening rapid-fire scene inside the offices of Bud Fox’s brokerage firm Jackson Steinem sets the pace for the way Bud’s financial future takes off after getting hooked by Gekko later in the film. Stone and director of photography Robert Richardson move the camera around the cramped, fluorescent-lit office in a way that echoes the news room in All the President’s Men. Surely the homage is no accident, contrasting Woodward and Bernstein and other newsmen of the previous generation – those men of honor – with the greedy brokers of the 80s who would sell their own souls for a buck.

Very quickly we’re introduced to the circumstances that set Bud forth on a path of destruction – he’s financially tapped out, can’t catch a break on the market with his clients and spends beyond his means, having to borrow from his father, Carl (Martin Sheen), an airline mechanic and union leader for Bluestar Airlines, to make ends meet. Bud is desperate to get into Gekko’s good graces, seeing his high-risk, fast-moving style as the ticket to fast cash. First he has to impress a man who’s already seen and done it all.

After pitching a few useless stocks to Gekko, he hesitatingly offers up some inside news gleaned from his father about Bluestar. Gekko is sufficiently impressed and earns enough to buy Bud into service. However, surely Bud was aware that the information he was passing was insider trading and didn’t need for Gekko to point this out to him later when he shows weakness to go ahead with underhanded practices.

The thing this film digs away at is the way money corrupts. There’s nary a character in the story who isn’t in some way touched by Wall Street corruption. Gekko and Fox are the obvious ones, but what of Gekko’s wife (Sean Young) who enjoys a luxurious life at the expense of stockholders for small companies that get eaten up by Gekko’s share purchasing. Or how about old school friend, Roger (James Spader), a lawyer who helps to gather inside information for Bud? Even Darien (Daryl Hannah), Bud’s love interest, is not immune to the allure of money as power. She was, after all, previously Gekko’s lover.

Of course Douglas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Gordon Gekko and man did he earn it. To see him in his first scene in his office handling multiple phone calls and people in his presence all at once is to see an actor working hard for his paycheck. But it’s not just that he can pitch and roll with the dialogue. He exudes a charisma while maintaining a cold, hard to crack exterior. I didn’t see Michael Douglas on the screen. He’s all Gordon Gekko. This is more than I can say for Charlie Sheen, who looks like he’s in over his head, which I guess is kind of the point. But he doesn’t quite seem up to the challenge.

What surprised me most is that Wall Street doesn’t feel dated. Okay, that feeling that you’re smack in the middle of an 80s film can’t be avoided with a cast that includes the younger Sheen, Hannah, Young and Spader and of course Stewart Copeland’s electro-pop score has not aged well. The subject matter could be applicable at any time, although it is indicative of the yuppie culture of its day. Bud Fox could be a mortgage broker in 2008.

At the end of the day, though, the film is little more than a simple turning-the-tables revenge scheme. Gekko’s big plan for Bud is to help him sink the plans of British investor Larry Wildman (Terrence Stamp) because Wildman had once stepped on Gekko’s toes during a big investment opportunity. Predictably enough, when Gekko turns out to be little more than a cold and calculating businessman with no regard for human beings (or more to the point, for Bud) and their jobs, who do you think Bud turns to for help?

I said before that nearly everyone is corrupted by money. The single exception and the moral center of the film is Carl Fox. He represents righteousness through his blue collar career (a glib contrast with the white collar brokers and players who populate the rest of the cast). Here’s a man who sees through the façade when presented with a surefire opportunity to improve Bluestar’s stock and refuses Gekko’s offer. Here’s a man also who stands by his son when he has little reason to. Even after Bud has brought the devil through the door and is on his way to prison, it’s his father who drives with him to the courthouse to face the music.

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