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.