Why all the aggression over The Wolf of Wall Street?

The debate over whether Scorsese glorifies or condemns the activities of US stockbrokers in the 1980s and 1990s has tipped into something much uglier - something personal. This is not criticism, it's just petty.

A curiously aggressive tenor has characterised some of the more positive reactions to Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street. This might be unworthy of note were it not consistent with the behaviour exhibited by the characters themselves. The phenomenon of the critic shaping his or her response in the image of the subject is not a new one, and is certainly not restricted to movies of a confrontational nature (which The Wolf of Wall Street necessarily is—depicting as it does the ferocious hedonism of stockbrokers in late-1980s and 1990s America). My review of the picture will appear in this Thursday’s NS, so I will reserve my remarks on the film itself until then, and observe simply that it has brought out an intemperate side in some normally level-headed commentators.

The sticking point is whether the film celebrates its objectionable characters rather than decrying them; it’s a simplistic argument that leaves no space for anyone who isn’t demanding that Scorsese should follow either of those options, or who thinks the flaws in the movie lie outside that domain. One UK critic, tweeting in a personal capacity, declared that “Anybody who thinks it glorifies anything is a...” Well, he didn’t put an ellipsis there, I can tell you that. He mentioned a part of the male anatomy to which it would not be flattering to be compared. Even a writer as measured as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody went for the same prescriptive tack, casting aspersions intellectually and even sexually on those viewers who respond to the picture negatively, or in a different way to him. He began his blog on the film by saying: “Anyone who needs The Wolf of Wall Street to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behaviour is dead from the neck down.” Yes, you read that right: anyone.

Brody didn’t specify what a person might be who didn’t think the film glorified bad behaviour but still disliked it for entirely different reasons. But he decided that the experience of watching the movie is “like mainlining cinema for three hours.” Usually it’s only beginners who use drug-taking terms to recommend movies. It makes them sound daring and youthful. Most of us have done it. But if we’re lucky, we kicked that habit. “It’s like Driving Miss Daisy on speed!” “It’s like Trainspotting on heroin!” “It’s like Tokyo Story on a mixture of prescription painkillers, LSD and Nurofen Cold and Flu.” Luckily, Brody’s New Yorker colleague David Denby, who had reviewed The Wolf of Wall Street in the magazine, had spotted in advance the pitfalls: “The film ... is a bit of a trap for critics. Scorsese mounts the filthy, piggish behaviour on such a grand scale that mere moral disapproval might seem squeamish, unimaginative, frightened.”

Our responses to works of art cannot help but be personal, and reflective of who we are. But to suggest that such tastes are indicative of an internal shortcoming is ludicrous, and reduces criticism to the level of playground name-calling. I also detect a slight hostility, at least in the distorted, higgledy-piggledy funhouse of social media, between those who admire Scorsese’s film while disparaging David O Russell’s gentler, warmer American Hustle: there are no reasons for these movies to be bracketed together apart from the accident of being released in close proximity to one another, and the fact that Russell pays deliberate homage to the senior filmmaker in parts of his movie. (There is also the awards season fervour to contend with: American Hustle won three Golden Globes at the weekend, The Wolf of Wall Street one.) It’s all in danger of becoming a bit tribalistic, a bit Blur vs Oasis, and critics would do well to stay out of the undignified business of making pre-emptive pronouncements on their readers’ allegiances. Rest assured that if you don’t like The Wolf of Wall Street, your credit rating will not be affected adversely and you will still be allowed to use the automated checkouts at your local supermarket. If you love American Hustle it will not tip any job interview in your favour. Not unless I’m the one doing the hiring.

The Wolf of Wall Street opens on Friday.


Now listen to Ryan discussion The Wolf of Wall Street with Philip Maughan on the NS podcast:


Show me the money: Leonardo DiCaprio in the in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses