As Wall Street director Oliver Stone notes in the audio commentary for the film, not many films about big business as the central topic have ever been made. It’s a tough nut to crack, to be sure: most films either go overboard with the nomenclature of the trade, shooting way over the audience’s heads (Rollover), or they just deal with it peripherally, as window dressing for easier-to-grasp (and write) subjects like love (Trading Places, Working Girl). And some movies, like he much overrated Inside Job, pretend to examine it, but actually just pay lip service. And then, even if it works, there’s no guarantee the audiences will agree.
But Wall Street is the exception, practically the lone exception in my opinion. It straddles the balance between tight, smart accuracy and immensely satisfying entertainment. With a razor sharp screenplay by its director, Oliver Stone, and Staney Weiser, it darts from scene to scene, character to character, in a flurry of deals, mergers, breakups, valuations, buying, selling, acquisitions and liquidations. It really all does feel like you’re on the floor of the NY Stock Market, and Stone’s human story is in keeping with his usual recurrent, archetypal theme of a neophyte who must chose between good and bad, and grow regardless of which path he chooses.
Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a Wall St. stockbroker, working like a dog but loving the rush of buying and selling – and making money. Opposite him is his dad, Carl (Martin Sheen), a union foreman for the airline Bluestar. But restless Bud wants to meet with multi-millionaire corporate raider Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), and lures him in with the inside scoop (learned from dad) that Bluestar stocks will rise after a favorable court ruling. They do, and now an impressed Gecko takes Bud under his wing, showing him the in’s and out’s of the trade, and a few tricks that might not necessarily be legal. He has the boy trail his British archrival, Larry Wildman, and learns as a result that a steel company is a comer. Wildman fumes, sensing foul play, but for Gecko it’s all in the game – nothing is right or wrong, only what you can get away with.
Now immersed in the world of insider-trading, Bud’s wealth grows staggeringly, He hooks up with Darien (Daryl Hannah), an upscale interior designer, and buys a posh new apartment on the Upper East Side. But he also starts to understand the insidious side of Gecko’s machinations, and what he does to companies after he acquires then. When Gecko outlines a “restructuring” of Bluestar, Carl sees it for the ruse that it really is; only too late does Bud realize what he has allowed when he learns of plans to liquidate the company, selling off planes, busting unions, firing scores and eliminating pensions. But Bud isn’t defeated yet – he hatches a plan to get the airline back by leaking the liquidating plans, causing a mass buyout of its stocks followed by a mass sellout when they peak. He then has the unions tell Gecko they’re pulling out, compelling him to sell his shares, but no one wants to buy. Before long, he dumps everything, at a huge loss only to learn his rival Wildman had scooped everything up, promising to retain unions and company integrity.
As revenge, Gecko calls the SEC and the feds on Bud, who goes to jail, but not before wearing a wire to final talk with Gecko. His fate is now sealed as well.
Douglas, of course, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gecko, the unctuous profiteer whose “Greed Is Good” speech has by now become just as famous as its orator, but for me the real star is the screenplay. Loaded with sharp, knowing dialogue, it transcends the genre to become not just one f the best scripts about high finance ever written but one of the best scripts period. (Only major flaw: overuse of folksy metaphors to convey points; a little goes a long way – best kept to Hal Holbrook’s character.) David Mamet tends to get more credit – particularly with his Glengarry Glen Ross play and screenplay, creative wordplay and all – but Stones is just as good at handling the mechanics of his fiscal language.
But I mustn’t overlook his direction, either, which allows his thick dialogue breathing room (something few wordy films do nowadays), while offering some kinetically charged visuals to go along with them (thanks in part to Robert Richardson’s fantastic camerawork). And I got a little nostalgic too, seeing something by Oliver Stone back when the director could still make a coherent film. Clearly things changed for him by the mid-90s, but during this period he was on a epic roll, starting with 1986’s Salvador and ending with JFK in 1991. Can’t think of another director with a roll like that.
And then, of course, seeing Wall Street in 2017 is a thoroughly different experience than it was for me back in 1987. I remember I saw it in theaters first, then worked at a video store the following summer when it was a heavy rental. I loved it because it felt like an “adult” film to me, and I was a big Charlie Sheen fan too (second only to Michael J. Fox). It was one of my first movie reviews too.
But now, it has fresh resonance, and not exactly more positive. By now we have a different outlook on its time period – the moneygrubbing frenzy of Reagan 80s, Black Monday and all – left us a legacy of joblessness, poverty and lack of accountability by those corporate raiders (see Roger and Me). And then, Enron, and later, the Recession of ’08, caused by those corporations “too big to fail,” gave me a different perspective of those stylish, tie-wearing smoothies who bragged about “bagging the elephant.” Or maybe I’m just smarter now about what they were doing.
And, of course, now we have a Gordon Gecko in the White House. The leader of the free world is also conniving wheeler-dealer, whose avarice, and the duplicity with which he uses to trounce his opponents into the ground, knows no bounds. So now seeing Wall Street makes me angry, because I can’t just be angry at the characters ike Gecko; I’m angry with whom they represent as well.
But I’m sure that’s what Stone would have wanted.
A classic, and my favorite Stone film. See it. Get mad too.
P.S: More prescient than I thought. Keep your eyes peeled for a hand-held TV (Early iPhone), an immersion blender and sushi. Gecko should’ve invested in these.