Monday, May 25, 2015

Wall Street (1987) ****

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is Good.” These words, spoken by Michael Douglas's character Gordon Gekko, are some of the most famous words of the 1980's. What's amazing is that even now, when the quote has long since passed into the realm of parody, Douglas manages to make it sound plausible when you hear it in the context of the film. He delivers the line at a stockholder's meeting, where he is trying to win over the other stockholders for an important vote. He goes on to explain that greed, whether for money, for love, or for life, is the force driving mankind's advancements, and that it is the profit motive that will allow them to cut out the excess fat at the company they all own and turn it into a lean, successful business again. At this point in the film, we know Gekko is sleazy, but his argument seems to have some merit.

Later in the film, we see just how far Gekko's dishonesty goes, and that his form of greed is only a destructive force, not a creative one. As he explains to his protege, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), “I don't create anything...I just transfer wealth from others to myself.” Bud, a hungry,young broker hoping to emulate Gekko, has placed himself in orbit around the great man, helping Gekko engage in insider trading on a regular basis. In exchange, Gekko makes Bud rich and hooks him up with Darien (Daryl Hannah), the kind of high-class beauty that only rich men can afford. When Gekko finally stoops lower than even Bud will go, Bud is forced to choose between his fancy new life and his tattered conscience.

“Wall Street” has come to be considered a defining film of the 1980's, but the movie is really timeless. Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen fit these roles perfectly. Martin Sheen (as Bud's working-class father) and Hal Holbrook (as a senior stockbroker) can be perhaps a bit preachy at times, but they serve their purpose as representatives of traditional, hard-working values in the face of Gekko's amoral, short-cut-taking greed. The only weak link in the film is Daryl Hannah, and I've read that Oliver Stone regretted casting her. Apparently, she couldn't reconcile herself to her character's amorality.

I'm always interested in why some movies age so well. “Wall Street” is about guys who wear slicked-back hair and dark suits all the time, a style which really doesn't change much over the decades. In fact, the only time this film looks dated at all is when Daryl Hannah rocks some big shoulder pads. What really makes the film timeless, though, is it's theme of greed and consequences. It's easy to see how this film plays well now, in the receding wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, caused as it was by the greed of Wall Street bankers. Audiences in 1987 had their own reasons to despise fat cats, with the headlines full of high unemployment, insider trading scandals, and failing Savings and Loans. The truth is, it isn't in the American nature to be embittered towards the rich. We are much more likely to want to emulate a rich man than to begrudge him his wealth. Our respect for Capitalism, however, is predicated on the image of a capitalist as someone who invests money in a worthy enterprise, then profits when that enterprise is successful. In this scenario, everyone wins, because the growth of that enterprise expands the total wealth of society. Guys like Gekko, though, make their living off of arbitrage and speculation, which are zero-sum games. For Gekko to win, someone else has to lose, and the total wealth is not increased. If a guy like Gekko gets a tip that you are headed to the store to buy milk, he'll swoop in ahead of you and buy up all the milk, then jack up the price when you arrive. He would never stoop to actually milking a cow. These Wall Street guys claim that their activities create liquidity in capital markets and make our economy run more efficiently. It seems, however, that the headlines of every era are full of stories about these guys lying and manipulating until, repeatedly, they manage to break the economy. That's why “Wall Street” has aged so well. It's a tightly-woven story about this form of greed, and there isn't a decade in the last century in which this story wouldn't resonate.

4 stars out of 5

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