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Wall Street: Insider Trading Edition

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Martin Sheen, Darryl Hannah

(US DVD: 7 Sep 2010)

The most amazing thing about this supposed classic is that, apart from a magnetic performance from Michael Douglas, Wall Street is a pretty terrible movie. It’s hilariously campy, stilted, and stagey, and features the worst acting of Darryl Hannah and Charlie Sheen’s respective careers. Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser’s script is amazingly deliberate and forced – everything anyone says is all weighty this and symbolic that, and consequently no one ever seems to act much like a human being. When Charlie Sheen breaks down and cries toward the end, it actually looks like he is trying to force his face to make tears. All this and a bunch of expressionistic uses of golden sunlight washing over everything right up until the ever so gray skies at film’s end.


Oliver Stone, few will disagree, has a tendency to overdo things a bit. Subtlety is not this man’s strong suit. (Nor, it would seem, is either restraint or nuance.) He famously likes to take his point – the point here being that greed is, despite Gordon Gekko’s Oscar-baiting protestations to the contrary, not actually good – and beat his audiences over the head with it at every turn. His reputation as an auteur is well-deserved, since few have developed such a recognizable signature, but don’t be fooled into thinking that his auteurdom signifies his talent. Rather, it’s just a way of saying that, if you hate one Oliver Stone film, you are likely to hate them all. Because they all suffer from the same disease.


Not that Wall Street didn’t have a worthy message to beat people over the head with. The high flying under-regulated Wall Street of the mid-‘80s was just about to lead to the junk bond scandals and savings and loan debacles of the turn of the decade, and Stone’s 1987 film was brilliantly prescient in its approach to the imminent public interest in the financial world. Of course, the public would soon stop caring much, look away, and let the whole messy affair develop again.


Except this time around the criminals and robber barons and other successful folks in the financial sector would manage to get away with infinitely more than they were able to back in the ‘80s. Hence: the busy-being-released Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which aims to update this tale of greed and ambition to our present catastrophe. So, that’ll be heartwarming. However, one wonders what in the world there is left to say after the 126-minute lecture that is the original film?


The plot of Wall Street, though it involves some intrigue about investment strategies and other stuff, is basically a variation on the old moral lessons about not forgetting where you came from. Here is the size of it: a working class boy (Charlie Sheen) rises to prominence and power through a combination of doggedness and (at first) a few transgressions. He then tries to divest himself of his working class roots by symbolically killing his father and adopting a new one, but at the cost of losing himself in the process. (Sheen actually looks out the window meaningfully at one point and asks aloud “Who am I?”. Seriously.) Soon enough, our hero flies too close to the sun and comes crashing back down to earth, and is forced to crawl back to those he once denied.


Perhaps the most important thing about this lesson when it is applied to the American financial scene is that it tells a rather contradictory story to the classic Horatio Alger myths that are so often used to inspire Wall Street-types. This is, at the root, a film about the idea that the game is rigged, and that the only way to achieve self-made-man success in this field is to become a criminal, an ass, and a robot. Throughout the film, a complete lack of empathy is celebrated as central to triumph in the financial world, and is juxtaposed against the familial nature of the working class unions represented by the Sheen character’s father (played by a laconic Martin Sheen).


Indeed, this either/or sensibility pervades just about everything in the film. Everything is black and white; complexity is as foreign to this morality fantasy as it is to a children’s fable. (Actually, it’s fun to think of it as some kind of office tower Star Wars with Gekko as Darth Vader (or perhaps the Emperor, whatever) and money the dark side of the force. Hal Holbrook plays the Ben Kenobi character (or Yoda, again, whatever), persistent in his warnings to Sheen not to take it too far, not to be too tempted, not to go over the edge, etc. Sheen, of course, is our hapless young Jedi, ever headed toward the dark end of the tunnel.)


If only real life were this easy to figure out. In Oliver Stone’s hands, even the most complicated tangle can come out looking like two distinct strands. Problem is, in order to separate them, he just cuts away at anything that looks loose.


This new double disc edition comes with a multitude of extras including a feature commentary from Stone, a couple of interviews-cum-promos for the upcoming sequel (which is certainly the reason for this new edition’s release), and a weird thing called a “Fact Exchange” which allows you to watch the movie while a continuous scroll onscreen offers trivia and random notes regarding the stuff that’s happening. This feature made no sense to me, but it might impress those of you who like to read other stuff while sort of watching a movie.

Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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