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The money will roll right in

Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko is back. But what was he all about? Meant to symbolise the finan

It's been 23 years since the release of Wall Street; time does fly when you're witnessing the fall of western civilisation. Two worldwide re­cessions later, Oliver Stone's film still has the emotional complexity of a flicker book. But it emerged early enough during the spread of yuppiedom to give the illusion of having fostered or colluded in the rise of the phenomenon it was commenting on. Perhaps it wasn't an illusion after all. Social and cultural movements can only benefit from artistic ratification, and Wall Street provided that as much as Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, published the same year, or Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991), neither of which was any more successful in killing off the targets of its ire. Apparently intended as character assassinations on a stereotype, all three instead had the effect of a massage.

Wall Street opened in the United States in December 1987, less than two months after Black Monday. In the ruthless figure of Gordon Gekko, an arbitrageur but not a gentleman, the film provided a personification of that catas­trophe's unseen catalysts. Like most fictional characters that aspire to the iconic, Gekko came with a distinctive idiom and image. Slicked-back hair gave him the aerodynamic sleekness of the alien in Alien. And he had catchphrases, too, which can only have boosted his appeal, Loadsamoney-style. Greed was good, and lunch was for wimps. Red braces, strangely enough, escaped all censure.

The popular myth that Gekko was the villain of the piece, conceived as an abhorrent symbol of his times, has been recycled so often that we have begun to believe it. But it's no wonder Wall Street came to double as a recruiting drive for prospective bankers when Gekko was the sole source of vim in the movie. Remove him from the action and your Bloody Mary becomes a tomato juice.

When the single focus of an audience's int­erest and entertainment is a shark in a chalk-stripe suit, you can hardly protest when he also becomes an object of adulation. At least when Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, he had, in Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, actors of roughly equal heft. The face-offs in Wall Street between Charlie Sheen, as the go-getting young broker Bud Fox, and Michael Douglas, as Gekko, were fatally uneven by contrast.

Gekko came at a ripe time for Douglas - the actor's run of victimised, even feminised, heroes (Basic Instinct, Disclosure, The Game) had begun a few months earlier with Fatal Attraction, but his range could also stretch to fury, as proved by Wall Street and, later, The War of the Roses and Falling Down. And Sheen? Let's just say that you can't write a scene in which he asks the night sky, "Who am I?", as he does in Wall Street, and then expect that to take care of depth. At least the sky refrains from answering: "Middling actor with the common touch. Got where you are 'cos of Dad."

The absence of any feasible threat to Gekko is only half the problem. Just when he is on the brink of defeat, as he is at the end of the film, when Bud becomes a snitch for the authorities, the picture turns discreetly away; it's like a nature documentary that cannot bring itself to show an ailing lion being savaged by hyenas. That simple editorial choice gives the lie to the notion that Wall Street is a diatribe against Gekko and his ilk. Sentimentality wins out: the sight of Gekko looking vulnerable remains too awful to be envisaged anywhere but in our imagination.

In fact, British television audiences enjoyed the privilege of seeing Gekko subtly undermined. When the ageing scam merchant Del Boy (David Jason) in John Sullivan's BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses took to wearing Gekko's trademark braces and brandishing a then-exotic mobile phone in an attempt to affect yuppie swagger, something in his absurd pantomime reflected back on to Wall Street itself. Del Boy's hero-worship made Gekko seem ridiculous and peevish in a way that the film had failed to do.

This is where Stone's sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps comes in. Its greatest worth lies in finally facing up to the sight of Gekko on his uppers. The film begins in 2001, with Gekko's release from prison after serving eight years for insider trading. His raggedy mane looks like silver seaweed; his face is as crumpled and faded as an old dollar bill.

Moving forward another seven years, Gekko is now the author of a cautionary bestseller (title - Is Greed Good?) and can be found attracting queues at bookstore signings and idolatry on lecture tours. In the audience is a young trader, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan).

Knowing that audiences in 2010 will be slower to root for a financially motivated protagonist, the screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have supplied Jake with the lust for a more acceptable kind of green: he's trying to convince his paymasters to throw their weight behind green energy. But as the markets crash and his investment-banking firm goes under in the absence of a government bailout, Jake accepts a job with Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a vampiric banker who is the new film's substitute for the Gekko of old.

It's an odd quirk of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps that it feels simultaneously topical and dated. On the one hand, the film deals in the subject matter and jargon with which we are all now au fait. Even five years ago, the world might have assumed that quantitative easing was one of the many services that Charlie Sheen once paid Heidi Fleiss to perform. Now we know better. The flipside of having experienced first-hand the discomfort of life during a recession is that the drama of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, restricted as it is to penthouse rather than pavement, can feel distinctly remote. Dominic Savage's 2009 BBC film, Freefall, was made for a fraction of the cost of Stone's movie, but the ease with which it moved between culpability and suffering, showing the consequences for ordinary families of the bankers' recklessness, puts both Wall Street pictures to shame. Engaging with a common reality is an admirable ambition for a Hollywood film, but it must be halfway to failure when a key plot-point concerns a $100m trust fund placed in jeopardy, or when Jake tells his mother: "I'm lending you $30,000 that I barely even have." (You've got to love that "barely".)

Gordon Gekko takes a back seat in the new film, but the old problems pertaining to him have only partly been solved: there are still no other characters to compete with his magnetism. There is the added weight, too, of Douglas's off-screen baggage. The screenwriters have given Gekko a backstory involving a wayward son who met a sticky end years earlier; Douglas's own son, Cameron, is currently serving a prison sentence for drug offences, and the actor has admitted to being an unsatisfactory father - a confession that he repeats here, in character. And though the film was finished before Douglas received his recent throat cancer diagnosis, that doesn't make it any easier to listen to him employing cancer analogies when discussing speculation, or the human capacity for greed.

If the defining flaw of the first Wall Street film was its refusal to cut its ties with Gekko, then the sequel suffers from a similar excess of fidelity to the character. Given the apologetic air of the sequel, and the contrite climate in which it was conceived, it is no surprise that Gekko ends the story here as a changed man. But the qualities that we seek in the people who run the banking industry are not the same as those that make for compelling char­acters in fiction.

And while it would be wonderful if real-life Gekkos underwent the transformation that we see on screen, it is an own-goal for the film that some of us will come out thinking that we liked Gekko better when he was bad. To hear him draw to a close the combined four hours of the Wall Street movies by admitting that human beings are "a mixed bag" carries all the satisfaction of watching Hannibal Lecter tucking into a nut roast.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (certificate 12A) opens on 6 October.

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.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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