Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Capitalism, a Dislike Story – Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 26, 2010

Does anyone remember Oliver Stone? Not the Oliver Stone who made Alexander, World Trade Center and W, but the Oliver Stone of the 80’s and 90’s. The guy who made movies that mattered, who swung for the fences every time and hit home runs more often than not. The Oliver Stone who stirred shit up, pissed people off, challenged the status quo, made people think differently about the world they live in. That Stone was the man back then, the big swinging dick of Hollywood who made grown-up movies about the Real World at a time when most of the mainstream film industry was mining pure fantasy and mindless Reagan-era jingoism.

I’m not sure where that guy went. Maybe he got tired of fighting the good fight. Maybe he stopped believing that his movies could change the world. Because, well, they apparently didn’t. But at least he gave a shit. After his disappointing output of the last decade or so (culminating in the frustratingly punch-pulling W, which could have and should have hit its subject a lot harder), I wouldn’t blame anybody for writing him off. But I still find him an interesting filmmaker, and I find it difficult to completely dismiss the man who made Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Natural Born Killers. You can argue the merits of those movies until the cows come home, but for me they were life-changing events. In a way, they were true punk-rock films, works of passion that raged against a corrupt and uncaring system. Those four films probably changed the way I looked at the world more than anything else I watched, read or listened to growing up, and they helped shape the person I’ve become from a naive teenager to a politically aware adult (although some would probably argue that was a negative thing). So yes, Oliver Stone’s films changed at least one person’s life, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

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I’m thrilled to report that there are glimpses of the old rabble-rousing Oliver in his new film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It’s not quite a home run, but it’s as close as he’s come in quite some time, and even a partial return to form is worth celebrating. The original 1987 Wall Street was never one of my favorite Stone films, in all honesty. While I recognized that it was well done and important, it never really connected with me personally. I found it hard to relate to those characters, even when I knew that Stone was criticizing them and their values and beliefs. I didn’t really care what happened to Charlie Sheen’s character Bud Fox, because I felt he was a corrupt person who chose a corrupt business. Fuck that guy! But it did make people much more aware of how bankers and businessmen control the fates of the average person, a fact that came thundering home two decades later when a bunch of greedy, privileged assholes “playing the game” practically bankrupted America. I never understood why people thought Gordon Gekko was a guy worth emulating – he was clearly the villain of the piece, after all, and Stone obviously meant the “greed is good” speech to be ironic. It’s like those rappers who watch Scarface and want to be Tony Montana – talk about missing the point.

All of which brings us to Money Never Sleeps, the seemingly inevitable follow-up which takes place before and during the 2008 financial crisis. Stone clearly doesn’t intend to reinvent the wheel here – stylistically, it’s practically a bookend to the original film, with the same style of opening credits and the use of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” on the soundtrack (the film also features original songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno). But the original’s jaded view of the Wall Street shenanigans has been replaced by something softer, almost nostalgic. After all, the likes of Gordon Gekko are small time compared to the douchebags who nearly brought us to our knees two years ago. The “old guard” represented by Gekko and Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) are revered as relatively noble icons, while the villains are the younger sharks led by Bretton James (Josh Brolin).

For that matter, Gordon Gekko himself seems like a somewhat different guy. Having served time in jail, he’s not just older but humbler, his hair grown wild, regretful of the time lost with his family and the greed culture he helped create. He’s taken the position of know-it-all elder statesman, having written a book in which he questions everything he once believed in. But of course, he’s still got that hunger to be back on top again. Michael Douglas is again fantastic in the role (and looking more like his father than ever), but here he’s able to show different sides to the character that we didn’t have the opportunity to see before. He genuinely seems to want to reconcile with his now grown-up daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and be a mentor to his future son-in-law (Shia LaBeouf), a young Wall Street trader. If Gekko sometimes seems to be a supporting character in his own movie, his shadow hangs over everything that takes place. And to those of you who are let down by the ending (which I won’t reveal here), I suggest you watch Douglas’ performance again.

Stone clearly could have used this opportunity to eviscerate the people responsible for the financial crisis, or even make a Michael Moore-style polemic decrying the whole system. And maybe the old Oliver Stone would have done just that. Instead, he makes us like and understand these people and the situation they’re in. He obviously knows this world inside and out, and is just trying to portray it realistically. This may be disappointing to some who are expecting him to tear Wall Street a new asshole, but I think he does make his points here without hammering them into our skulls. Each of the characters has his or her own “moral hazard” to face – some pass the test and some don’t. But it’s never as easy as one might think. If Money Never Sleeps gives us a softer, more mature Gordon Gekko, it just reflects a more mature Stone, one who isn’t afraid to let the audience come to its own conclusions on occasion. Not necessarily a bad thing.

But I do wish he’d bare his teeth on occasion the way he used to. Come on Oliver, we need you now more than ever.

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