Wall Street (1987)
Written by Oliver Stone & Stanley Weiser
Directed by Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone is one of those filmmakers I’ve seen many films from but don’t feel I’ve ever dived deep into his work. I remember being hyper-aware of JFK when it was released and then subsequently referenced in comedy across the contemporary landscape of the time. Riding high off the success of Platoon, Stone wanted to write a script with his film school friend Stanley Weiser about the 1950s quiz show scandal. As ideas were tossed back and forth, the film evolved into focusing on Wall Street and the investment boom of the 1980s. The two writers spent weeks observing at a brokerage firm and pulled on their own connections within the tribe of stock bros. Citing inspirations like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and the satire of Paddy Chayefsky, they ended up with a script titled Greed, later changed to Wall Street.
Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a junior stockbroker cold calling potential clients from his cubicle in a Manhattan office. His golden goose is the prestigious Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), an investor known to consistently pick winners. Bud shows up at Gekko’s office on the older man’s birthday with a box of Cuban cigars (Gekko’s favorite). The investor decides to humor Bud and asks him for stocks, but Gekko doesn’t hear anything he doesn’t already know. Then Bud remembers something his dad, Carl (Martin Sheen), told him about his employer, Bluestar Airlines. A court case surrounding faulty equipment is set to come down in favor of Bluestar, which means the company will start an expansion, and investors will clean up. Of course, Bud shouldn’t tell Gekko this but does, which endears the hungry young man to him. From there, Bud begins a descent, becoming Gekko’s personal puppet, testing the young man to see how far he will go.
In my freshman year of college (1999), this movie kept rearing its head for some reason. I remember seeing a clip in a classroom and, even worse, having part of the movie played at Wednesday night college class at a nearby church. I attended a private Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee, and it seemed like a lot of intellectual contortionism was happening around critiques of corporate & wealth-based industry. The “eye of a needle” parable was regularly brought up in mandatory mid-day chapel or Bible classes with the caveat that the needle was a gate in Jerusalem or some other shit they trotted out to justify the nauseating level of greed present in our culture. I can’t remember a Bible class where Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables was brought up; go figure.
With two decades plus behind me, revisiting Wall Street was a much more enlightening experience. I was an intellectual neophyte, having come from a homeschooling background. I find Michael Douglas’s performance as Gekko very smartly done. He’s never a loud, over-the-top maniacal villain but a cold lizard (per the name). He doesn’t come to Bud, Bud comes to him, and Gekko is simply intelligent enough to take advantage of an opportunity when he sees it. Gekko does exhibit passion, but only in the sphere of investment; his engagements with women are purely transactional and don’t elicit the same fire we see when he’s barking orders over the phone. The elements of Gekko’s life are ornaments on a lavish year-round Christmas tree, a method of showing off his business acumen and relentlessness.
I don’t think Charlie Sheen matches the energy Michael Douglas brings to the table. Sheen the Younger isn’t terrible but lacks the life experience of the older actors he’s performing against. His weaknesses stand out against their obvious talent. I did love Martin Sheen as Carl, the biological father who contrasts with Gekko’s surrogate. With the right material, Sheen the Elder can play working-class characters with a lot of honesty. All the way back to Terrence Malick’s Badlands makes that evident. There’s something about Martin’s voice and physicality that makes him slide into those characters so effortlessly, and probably why I never enjoyed him as President Bartlet in The West Wing (Oh yes, and Aaron Sorkin is a hack writer that probably played a role too).
Stone’s overall argument in Wall Street is that the investment industry is a massive scam where only alpha predators like Gekko make out well. Everyone is being played based on their role in the system. People like Bud are valuable idiots, made hungry by the temptation of the ostentatious lifestyle showcased by Gekko’s class. These low-level investors believe that through toil and submission to their “betters,” they can ascend the valleys of Manhattan’s high rises. We know this is a pipe dream, a cruel treasure dangled over their heads to make them jump when called. Sheen and Weiser do their damndest to make these intentionally incomprehensible systems of stocks and trades into something a general audience can digest and understand. There’s never a moment where the audience will feel underwater, and it’s clear who is doing what and how the power flow works in each relationship.
Ultimately, Stone refuses to play things as Gekko being the exception; he is the standard. If this is true, then the entirety of capitalism is to blame. Gekko is not doing anything dozens of other influential white men do simultaneously. The emphasis is pushed by Gekko that no one is getting hurt because we don’t see traditional types of victims. The harm happens far away from where the crimes are committed. While I find American Psycho to capture my emotions regarding the investment class, Wall Street is a very well-made cold, and direct movie about that same world, where a predator like Gekko always seems to win.