Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: ‘Wall Street’

Wall StreetThere’s an unprecedented and totally weird experiment in popular entertainment that’s going to happen on Sept. 24. Near as I can tell nobody’s ever done what Oliver Stone is about to do with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Oliver Stone loves America. It’s obvious. He only makes movies about subjects that hit deep into the heart of his country. Even when it’s critical, attention like that is a patriotic act. Vietnam, the JFK assassination, celebrity culture, football — in this decade he’s made movies about the two events that will leave the biggest impact on this young 21st Century: with World Trade Center, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and now, with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the economic crisis that crystallized into public awareness in the fall of 2008.

What’s strange about this is that Oliver Stone has already made a movie about money and finance in the United States, which brings us to this week’s case in point:

1987‘s Wall Street.

Wall Street used the topic of money to explore class, power and greed, using Michel Douglas’ Gordon Gecko as the face of the financial manipulators who maneuver through Wall Street. Gecko becomes the mentor of Charlie Sheen‘s Bud Fox, the son of a working-class Union leader — as if the only way to dramatize the fight between finance and people is to resort to such broad Marxist strokes.

Still, Oliver Stone has always been great at creating clear characters and muscular dramatic lines. The sheer momentum of his narratives is never in question, even when his proselytizing threatens to collapse the entire dramatic structure.

Wall StreetThe year 1987 was a different time in the United States when it comes to finance. Just before the S&L crisis hit public consciousness and a few years before the recession of the early ’90s, it was a climate in which it was possible to tell a story about Gordon Gecko that made us hate to love him. He was a pirate, a sort of financial swashbuckler. The iconic “greed is good” speech won Michael Douglas an Oscar not only because he delivered it with shameless and charismatic precision, but because somewhere in the heart of Americans it seemed true. But that was the ’80s, when it seemed like our economy had a future.

In an early montage in Wall Street, Bud Fox says to a potential buyer: “…But if I could just explain the opportunities emerging in the international debt market.” Back then the line sort of swept over the viewer as a part of the music of the stock market, but now it sends a cold shiver down the spine, with the mathematical black magic of the international debt market being, of course, a large contributor to the economic decline.

Nowadays it doesn’t quite feel as if the United States isn’t an empire at its height, or even an empire that can pretend its best days are ahead. It’s an empire in that slow-motion decline into which all empires eventually fall. Greed doesn’t seem so good anymore. The representatives of Wall Street no longer seem like irascible rapscallions. At best, they’re selfish; at worst, they’re selfish and incompetent. If Gordon Gecko got up today and tried to explain to us all that greed works, no ironic sheen on the planet would save him from seeming like a fool.

So Oliver Stone is bringing him back. It’s not a sequel, strictly speaking. I’m not sure what it is, or will be, but it will be defined by what place Oliver Stone carves out for Gordon Gecko in this new financial landscape. Can he charm us? Does he have more lessons to teach? Can one tell a story about American capital that is anything other than a swan song? Or will it be Shia LaBeouf who saves us all?

Next week: an interlude about vampires.