Wall Street, twenty years on

[Friday]

Yes, a film review. You can see why I’ve not been head-hunted by Empire. Don’t worry, I won’t be posting a review of this year’s Hollywood blockbusters.

I recently bought Wall Street on DVD and it was worth seeing again. Made by director Oliver Stone after he won an Oscar for Platoon, the jungles of Vietnam are succeeded by the concrete jungle of New York’s financial centre. The film was developed without a title, perhaps because of its radical implications (Wall Street is a synecdoche of capitalist America) proved unpalatable for the Hollywood system.

Wall Street is a morality tale driven by a non-romantic love triangle. Young stockbroker Bud Fox loves his father, a hard working machinist and union rep at Bluestar Airlines, but he desires more than the life of hard work and ill health his father endures. Fox chases his idol Gordon Gekko, ace investor, and manages to get his foot in the door by delivering a box of Cuban cigars to him on his birthday. Whilst there, Fox offers his best investment tip, gleaned from his father’s inside knowledge as a trade unionist.

The naïve Fox is soon led astray by Gekko and as he begins operating as the investor’s sidekick and spy he gradually loses his moral compass and comes to resemble his unscrupulous mentor. The final straw is a hostile takeover of his father’s airline: when Fox realises that the workers will be screwed – the company is to be broken up and sold off – and when the shock causes his father to suffer a heart attack, Fox quickly switches sides and acts to secure the future of the airline by helping a rival of Gekko buy out the firm. But it is too late for Fox: the cops are onto him for his insider dealing at Gekko’s behest, and although he entraps his former idol, it’s clear that our young protagonist is destined for the slammer.

Before the credits roll, his father tells him that a prison sentence is the best he could expect for eschewing creative work and living off buying and selling. Fox has lost his fancy lifestyle, his designer girlfriend, and his job as a stockbroker – all because he followed Gekko’s dictum: greed is good.

*

Wall Street should not be read as an anti-capitalist film; Stone dedicates the film to his father, a stockbroker who died in 1985, the year in which the action takes place, and the underlying message about finance is that it has lost its way. Gekko’s justification of the capitalist system is repugnant, but there is the sense that there is such a thing as a good capitalist. Gekko, the bad capitalist, wants instant payoff – at any cost to the businesses and workers involved.

Stone does not allow us an autobiographical reading. Although the film is centred on male relationships – centrally the father-son dynamic – the character that most represents Stone’s father is the older stockbroker, played by Hal Holbrook. But he is a peripheral figure, who advises Fox on the perils of the greedy path, but does not engage in a deeper relationship. It is worth noting that the female lead, played by Darryl Hannah, is essentially a cipher; an obligatory love interest to reflect Fox’s rise in status. There is little attempt to relate her character to the plot – her relationship with Gekko is downplayed, and there is no confrontation about this betrayal in the dénouement. It is as if there was a need on the behalf of the studio for a romantic love triangle, and her character was grafted onto the plot.

The longing expressed in the film is for a more honest financial set-up, the “golden age” before telecommunications technology made it possible for the world markets – trading day in, day out, without stopping – it is as if the rush is too great. This strikes me as an essentially conservative beef; the threat of constant and unpredictable change is feared more for its unfamiliarity and speed than the impact that it has on human existence.

The wealth creators make little appearance – as you would expect, considering the film concentrates on what are, in actuality, economic planning decisions. The workers have no say in such matters under capitalism. In the film, the airline workers are stitched up by two of their unions who conspire with Gekko to cut wages and conditions in order to keep the company afloat. Only Fox’s father is loyal to the democratic principles of trade unionism and goes to his members with honesty. In the end, there is no choice – it’s either accept the attack on living conditions, or be made redundant.

The film leaves one with the impression that the economy is essentially out of anyone’s conscious control; the possibility of conscious democratic control under social ownership is not considered, and naturally, this is entertainment and this is Hollywood.

Gordon Gekko comes close to elaborating a statement of (his) class interest at one point, but the success of Bud Fox gives the viewer the impression that the American Dream can become a reality: it is the nature of this reality which is flawed. Both Gekko and Fox come from modest backgrounds: the implication is that, if one is ruthless, it is possible to get to the top.

*

The casting is perfect: Michael Douglas plays the villain with charm, brilliantly contrasting the fresh-faced innocence of Charlie Sheen. Martin Sheen plays the senior Fox – the fact he is Charlie’s real-life father adds a visual reality and emotional chemistry to the father-son relationship. It is worth noting that the father, a working class trade unionist, has created the ambitious would-be capitalist son. Gekko’s background is alluded to, but beyond his wife and child we see nothing of his own family. He lacks the morality of the other father figures – Fox’s actual father, and the avuncular stockbroker who chides the young man for his rashness. In this, we are given to understand that the authentic father is right, and Gekko, the false father who in the end beats his “son” is wrong.

Terence Stamp appears as Wildman, a scheming English capitalist modelled on Sir James Goldsmith; it’s a small part, but Stamp’s demeanour is perfectly suited. As I said before, Hannah’s character is frivolous and the implications of her relationship with Gekko are not brought to the fore; but we should not expect strong female roles from films dealing with finance. Is a feminist reading of Wall Street possible? A feminist reading of the film’s production might be more plausible…

*

At the start of the film, Fox is dealing in international debt; Gekko links the need for his method of economic “liberation” to guarantee America’s status as the big imperialist power. If Platoon can be seen as a critique is of militaristic imperialism, Wall Street acts as a denouncement of economic imperialism – but it is not too loud. The exploited workers and oppressed peoples do not feature in the film and are barely mentioned. Fox’s class background is in the aristocracy of labour – his father is a skilled manual worker and is a union representative. The petite bourgeois values of hard work coincide with the proletarian evaluation that labour creates the wealth and that it is nobler therefore to toil than to manage or exploit.

The American Dream is rendered possible for some, but it is clear that the values that drive this dream are anti-social. Fox sides with the workers and creativity over Gekko’s creativity with the truth and ruthless self-interest. What spoils the film is its depiction of workers as passive drones, unable to influence management, organise industry, or govern their affairs competently.

A problematic feature of depictions of clandestine, elite decision-making is that it pushes class interests into the foreground. This was an issue I had with Stone’s JFK – the motive behind any establishment plot to kill Kennedy was not elaborated clearly. In these cases, the class system appears to be nothing more than a network of isolated conspiracies. The notion of class interest is obscured by the depiction of the pursuit of this interest.

Despite its obvious faults – which from my perspective are related mainly to political line – Wall Street is a must-see motion picture, best viewed alongside its more recent equivalent, Boiler Room, which is essentially a updated version of the film. And I cannot finish without remarking upon the generation of stockbrokers inspired by Gekko: the ending makes Fox look like the loser, but there is no moral vindication of Gekko, who also faces a spell in the slammer. But then, does anyone believe that Gekko would have been sunk for long, if at all?

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4 Responses to “Wall Street, twenty years on”

  1. Renegade Eye Says:

    I love Michael Douglas on screen. I think “The Game” is a must see.

    I agree with your review. Stone will only go as far as calling for humane capitalism. I’m told his 9/11 movie, is actually rightist.

    Good blog.

  2. charliemarks Says:

    Thanks for commenting, compa. Yeah, Stone will talk of capitalism, the thesis, but no antithesis. I know that no one wants to watch undramatic lectures in the form of a film, but I think it is possible to ask questions within the media.

    I like Ken Loach for his sense of drama and realism just as much as the social commentary in his films. No one would watch his films and come away with the wrong impression. That it was unclear that Gekko was a villian and not a hero shows Stone’s essential lack of an answer.

    I wonder if it is a problem specifically with US cinema. My knowledge of “socialist” cinema is limited, but I can’t think of overtly socialist directors as one would find in Europe. There have been noted Marxist directors in France and Italy — related perhaps to the mass-based marxist parties in both countries. The lack of a mass based workers party was not related to anything specific about workers in the US — the sabotage of both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, and later the Panthers is well known. The lack of socialist directors is unsurprising when there’s no water in which to swim…

  3. V Says:

    Try and find and watch ‘Matewan’ (1987), an independent American movie based on real event in 1920s West Virginia. It’s directed by John Sayles and tells the story of West Virginian miners attempting to unionise. The mining company brings in scab labour and armed thugs. It’s a sort of late ‘western’ but to me it is a socialist epic. Imagine the miners strike of the mid-eighties with guns and a divide and rule race aspect. It also reminds us of the great socialist traditions the USA had at the turn of the century and which by the 1980s we had all forgotten. Indeed, watch any John Sayles film and you will see a side of America hollywood does not wish you to see.

  4. charliemarks Says:

    Ta for the recomendation, V


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